Rabbinic Literature and Middle Persian Texts

The article below “Rabbinic Literature and Middle Persian Texts” by Yaakov Elman was originally published  for the Encyclopedia Iranica in November 5, 2010. Kindly note that the images and accompanying captions do not appear in the Encyclopedia Iranica posting.


Jews and Persians

Jews and Persians had coexisted in Mesopotamia, mostly peaceably, for some 700 years by the time that the first generation of prominent Babylonian talmudic rabbis was born in the third quarter of the 2nd century, some 60 years before the end of the Parthian dynasty in 224 CE. The Babylonian Jews would continue to live under Iranian rule for more than five centuries, including the entire period of the formation of the Babylonian Talmud (220-500 CE). The 1.8 million words of that talmud, twice the size of the Code of Justinian, provides us with a rich source for understanding the intellectual, cultural, and social life of the Jews of southern Mesopotamia during those three centuries, thus presenting a picture of the community’s close relationship with Middle Persian culture, and their social and intellectual contacts with their fellow citizens of the Persian Empire. As the late 3rd-century rabbi, Rabbi Huna, put it, the Babylonian “exiles” were at ease in Babylonia, as the other Jews in the Roman world were not (Menahot, fol. 110a). The feeling of being “at ease” was more than political. Even the Babylonian rabbis were highly acculturated and some participated in the theological debates that characterized the third and fourth centuries, especially on the burning issues of theodicy, the reliability of oral transmission, and the physical resurrection of the dead at the end of the time. It is noteworthy that, in regard to the last two issues, they found themselves on the same side with the Zoroastrian priests and against the Manichaeans. But it is becoming apparent that they felt at ease in a more personal way, in language and social relations, so much so that some Babylonian rabbis of the late third and fourth centuries felt compelled to discourage social relations between Jews and non-Jews. The ongoing nature of such legislation and anecdotes preserved in the Talmud itself indicate that this effort was far from totally successful (Elman, 2010).

“The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context” by Shai Secunda. Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press (2013); Order: University of Pennsylvania PressAmazon.

As far as their political ease, it is clear that the Iranian government wanted it that way. Jews were a significant minority (Neusner I, p. 15) in Mesopotamia, which was both the breadbasket of the empire and the province most vulnerable to Roman invasion. Unlike Christians, who might become a fifth column once Christianity became a tolerated religion in the Roman Empire in 313, the Jews would support the regime if they were left alone. That does not mean that there were not fanatic outbreaks on the part of Zoroastrian priests (Beer, pp. 25-32; Rosenthal, pp. 41-42), but the weight of evidence seems to point to a situation of comfort (Brody, pp. 52-62; Kalmin, pp. 121-48).

The official religion of the Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism, was also comfortable and even familiar to the Jews, with its theological doctrines of creation by the benevolent and omniscient Ohrmazd (see AHURA MAZDĀ), the fight against Evil, reward and punishment, heaven and hell, judgment, creation, the coming of three pivotal “messianic” figures, the ultimate defeat of Evil, the resurrection of the dead and the renewal of creation. This was true of its ethical system as well, with its emphasis on good thought, good speech, and good deed (humathuxthuwaršt), and its ritual system with its stress on the avoidance of idolatry, its hatred of sorcery, “wasting of seed,” and contact with menstruant women and dead bodies. Moreover, such staples of Zoroastrian thought, such as the importance of oral transmission of sacred texts and the authority of learned elites were shared by both sides. True, the operation of the sociological/psychological principle of the “narcissism of small differences” would have meant that leaders of both religions would have stressed their differences rather than similarities, but as the evidence indicates, Jewish acculturation to an Iranian way of life, mores, and culture was high. Some rabbis borrowed institutions from Sasanian law into their own legal system, transplants that took root, though sometimes not without resistance. However, the resistance was not rooted in the “foreign” origin of the borrowing, but rather in the need to smooth out the rough edges of the legal institution in its new context; this was particularly the case in regard to the question of returnable gifts and temporary marriage (Elman, 2008).

Nevertheless, despite the intensity of acculturation in the first half of the Sasanian era, it is becoming clear that this “golden age” lasted only a few centuries and that conditions changed with the reigns of Yazdegerd II (439-57) and Pērōz (459-84) (Neusner, V, pp. 60-69, but see Wiesehöfer, pp. 215-16). The attitude of the talmudic redactors (2nd half of the 5th century) toward Sasanian law, for example, turned sharply negative, but since their concern with the close relations between Jews and non-Jews continued, it is unlikely that the political changes obliterated social interactions. Given the hostility to Jews that Syriac Christian sources manifest, however, it would seem that the Jews were closer to Iranian Zoroastrians than they were to the Mesopotamian Christians, who advocated a religion that represented itself as Judaism’s replacement.

Iranian Jews praying during Hanukkah celebrations on Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at the Yousefabad Synagogue, in Tehran, Iran (Source: Wodu).

Religious ferment in the Sasanian Empire. We may gather from Kartīr’s inscriptions (see KARTĪR) that inter-religious dialogue and polemic were the order of the day, with Judaeo-Christian sects like the Elchasaites, among whom the founder of Manichaeism, Mani, was raised, Christian sects such as the Marcionites and, certainly, the Manichaeans and Nazarenes (Jones et al., IV, pp. 2595b-596b, s.v. Ebionites; VIII, pp. 5634b-5640b, 5702a-b). In eastern parts of the empire, Buddhism and Hinduism were also factors. According to Pahlavi sources, Šāpur II (r. 309-79) held religious disputations (Boyce, p. 118; Shaki, pp. 114-25, esp. p. 119). According to Manichaean accounts, at least, Šāpur I (r. 241-73) harbored Mani in his entourage, though his motives for doing so are unclear (Lieu, pp. 58-59; Neusner, II, pp. 16-18). Indeed, according to Shaul Shaked, it was precisely the encounter with Judaism and Christianity that turned Zoroastrianism into a more thoroughly dualistic religion (Shaked, 1993, pp. 10-13, 23-26).

In spite of persecution, Mani’s influence continued to grow, even in the Jewish community, as did that of the Sasanians’ rejuvenated Zoroastrianism (see below). This was especially true of Mahoza, or, as the Christians called it, Kokhe, a suburb of Ctesiphon, capital of the empire and its cultural and religious center. Mahozan Jews shopped for staples in Mahoza, but for luxury goods they crossed the Tigris and went “downtown” to Ctesiphon, so merchants were familiar with their signatures and seals (Gittin, fol. 6a); these shopping forays thus provided another venue for social interaction, as well as demonstrating their ease in this multi-ethnic metropolis. Mahoza itself also provided ample opportunities for social and theological interaction. The bishop of Ctesiphon resided in Mahoza/Kokhe, as did the Jewish exilarch; eventually, the “round city” became home to five major Christian churches.

As a cross-roads of religions, it is hardly surprising that Mahoza was home to many proselytes (Qiddushin, fol. 73a), and we may well expect a fair amount of interchange of a complex legal, ritual, or even theological ideas. As James Russell has observed, “influences from one quarter…do not preclude promiscuous intermingling with material from another tradition…; influences need not be a graft, but can be also a stimulus that brings into prominence a feature that had been present previously, but not important” (Russell, p. 6).

The Range of Acculturation

The Persian cultural presence within the Babylonian Jewish community will be assessed here in the domains of language, lifestyle, intellectual-methofological engagemant, ritual acculturation, and legal accomodation vis-à-vis the challenge of Sasanian law.

A. Language. Though Talmudic Aramaic contains less than 300 attested Iranian loanwords, Middle Persian was familiar to a few of not most prominent rabbis, who could understand it even if they were unable to read it (Gittin, fol. 19b), but the could pun in it (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:6; Megillah, fol. 11a). Most Mahozans, who shopped in Ctesiphon, must have used it to communicate there. Talmudic Aramaic contains loan-translations from Middle Persian, is influenced by its syntax (ō lō/as a reflex as ayāb nē, for example) and even its propensity to use the verb kardan(to do, to perform) in compounds asu hizzuq in place of the more naturally Semitic heheziqu (Bava metzia, fol. 55b; Elman, 2007b, p. 15).

B. Intimate lifestyle. Rabbinic attitudes toward sexuality seem to have been particularly susceptible to Iranian influence, though not when they contravened biblical norms. In this the rabbis themselves may represent the attitudes of their non-rabbinic fellow Babylonian Jews. In his study of rabbinic norms of sexuality, Michael Satlow observed that “Babylonian sources reflect much more complex, and conflicted, sexual assumptions than do Palestinian sources,” but also a more positive one (Satlow, pp. 175-83; Rubenstein, pp. 67-79, 147-54).

Maggie Anton‘s novel “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” (Published by Plume 2012 – order at Amazon). Anton’s novel narrates the story of the daughter of a Talmudic figure who lived in ancient Persia (Picture Source: The Unmasked Persona’s Review).

Middle Persian culture, at least as represented by Zoroastrian texts (in contrast to Manichaean and Christian texts), reveals a much more relaxed attitude toward sexual ethics than do Greco-Roman pagan, Christian, and classical Jewish texts. Adultery is not a capital crime for women. A fine of 700 drachmas is levied for adultery and 500 for abduction, while deflowering a minor carries a penalty of 600 drachma (Mādayān ī hazār dādistān 73:8-10; Macuch, 1993, pp. 489-90, 492; Perikhanian, pp. 180-81). Further, if a male accompanying a female to study religious texts at a Zoroastrian school seduces her, especially in an area in which the husband’s word carries weight, it is considered as though the man had done so under the husband’s orders or his implicit permission (Hērbedstān 6.7; Kotwal et al., pp. 44-45).

With this in mind, one can better understand why two prominent rabbis contracted temporary marriages in accord with the Sasanian institution. Thus, when away from home, Rabbi Nahman of Mahoza contracted such marriages in the first quarter of the 4th century, and Rav, who was born in the waning years of the Parthian regime, also contracted temporary marriages. Temporary marriage cannot be separated from the issue of polygyny, which was certainly permitted by the most influential Babylonian rabbis, although it was much less common, or approved of, in Roman Palestine (Schremer, pp. 181-223).

Thus, it would seem that, for Mahozan Jewish society, polygyny, temporary marriage, and the entrance of women into social relations are evidence of Iranian influence. Even their view of women’s strong sexual desires matched those of the neighboring Iranian cultures (Elman, 2003b, pp. 242-47). Again, Rava’s permissive stance in regard to daytime marital intercourse (Niddah, fol. 17a) had a Zoroastrian demonological belief at its base, as did the Talmud’s suggestion that nail-parings should be buried (Williams, II, pp. 61-62; Gafni, 1990, p. 171; Elman, 2007a, pp. 141-44; idem, 2007c, p. 179; Vidēvdād, chap. 17).

The West Wall in Jerusalem. After his conquest of Babylon, Cyrus the Great allowed the Jewish captives to return to Israel and rebuild the Hebrew temple. It is believed that approximately 40,000 did permanently return to Israel (Photo source – see Blog).

Iranian attitudes predominated in more personal matters. For example, both Rabbis Nahman and Rava had a fear of death, of the process of dying, which was (wrongfully) considered painful (Moed qatan, fol. 28a). This is in line with the Zoroastrian attitude as expressed in Dēnkard 21: “the soul of the righteous undergoes much pain when it departs from the world; until it has passed through that frightful account, it laments” (Jaafari-Dehaghi, pp. 78-79). These anecdotes reflect an attitude to death on the part of Babylonian rabbis very different from those attributed to the sages of Roman Palestine (Ketubot, fol., 77b; Elman, 2004a). Again, Rabbi Nahman is reported to have told his daughters regarding the killing of lice: “Kill the hated ones and let me hear the sound!” (Shabbat, fol. 12a), quite like a Zoroastrian, for whom the killing of noxious beasts and insects was a good deed (kirbag; Elman, 2007c, p. 173; Moazami, 2005).

The Kulturkampf: Mahoza and Pumbedit. Among the many anecdotes preserved in the Babylonian Talmud are some that reveal the social tensions that roiled Babylonian Jewish society, and, at times, its relations with outsiders. For example, it is clear from an account of a confrontation between Rabbi Yehuda, founder of the Pumbedita Yeshiva about 100 km from the capital, and Rabbi Nahman, who in that story represents the quintessential Persianized Mahozan Jewish aristocrat, that the degree of acculturation of the middle classes probably differed from that of the wealthy and well-connected. Rabbi Nahman is mentioned more than 1500 times in the Talmud, and we can draw a fairly detailed picture of his views on many issues. Thus, he was strongly loyal to the Sasanian regime; he named one of his daughters Dēnāg (Qiddushin, fol. 70b), apparently after the name of several Sasanian queens, while his disciple Rava (mentioned some 3800 times in the Talmud, and who was of middle-class origins) criticized the regime with the words that “we are still the slaves of Ahasuerus” (i.e., Xerxes, the Achamenid king). Rabbi Nahman looked upon the Jewish holiday of Purim in more positive terms (Megillah, fol. 14a); in his lifestyle he was thoroughly Persianized. He contracted temporary marriages when away from home (Yoma, fol. 19b; Yevamot, fol. 37a), traveled in a gilded sedan chair (gōharqa, cf. Armenian gahaworak, litter, MP gāhwārag, “cot, cradle”; Gittin, fol. 31b), a practice that his disciple Rava, who was of middle class origins, adopted when he became wealthy (Bava metzia, fol. 73b); served his guests citrons, the royal fruit (see below); he used Persian terms rather than rabbinic or Aramaic ones (see below); he allowed the women of his household a degree of freedom that more conservative rabbis disapproved of (see below). Thus, a story (Qiddushin, fol. 70a-b) has Rabbi Yehudah criticize him for the latter two habits. He is criticized for his elitist, Iranicized language (the use of words such as atrunga[citron] and anbag [spiced wine]), and his permitting freer social mixing of the sexes. In particular, Rabbi Yehuda is depicted as objecting to being served by Rabbi Nahman’s minor daughter Dēnāg and to being asked to send a greeting to Yalta, presumably his wife, through her husband.

It is noteworthy, however, that Rabbi Nahman is not criticized for contracting temporary marriages, a practice adopted by Samuel’s colleague Rav, a precedent that may have protected Rabbi Nahman from censure. The criticisms of upper-class lifestyle, however, did not end with Rabbi Nahman himself; they continued with his family, especially Yalta, who is described as high-handed and proud (Berakhot, fol. 51a), as well as timorous and desirous of her comfort (Bezah, fol. 25b). His daughters are depicted and condemned for not being particularly eager to be rescued from captivity among gentiles with its concomitant danger of rape (Gittin, fol. 45a).

The narrator reveals a large degree of cultural and linguistic sophistication. He distinguishes three registers of rabbinic, popular, and elitist in Hebrew and Aramaic, and knows that atrunga (MPers. wādrang) and anbag (MPers. anāpak) are Middle Persian loanwords. Clearly, this was one of the defining issues of his world, as important to him as the question of the mingling of the sexes (compare a similar theme in Shabbat, fol. 32a). This story allows us to trace a Kulturkampfwithin rabbinic circles in Babylonian Jewish society, since Rabbi Nahman is condemned by the use of cultural stereotypes. The Talmud associates both Persians (Shabbat, fol. 94a) and the Jewish Persianized elite with arrogance, a charge echoed for the Persians by Procopius (History of the Wars, passim). The Talmud also mocks the practice of kin-marriage (xwēdōdāhYevamot, fol. 97a-b), but the story is not an all-out attack on Iranian lifestyle, but rather a critique of a specific type of aristocratic adaptation to it, that is, the upper-class Mahozans (Elman, 2007c, pp. 173-75).

The tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan, northwest Iran. External view (left) and the interior of the tomb (right).

Rav, however, was apparently immune from this criticism, though he is reported to have been a “friend” of Artabanus/Ardawān V, the last Parthian king (Avodah zarah, fols. 10b, 11a). He quotes a Zoroastrian theological statement on fate (see below) and advises against traveling by night out of fear of demons (Bava qamma, fol. 60b). Given all of this, the statement attributed to him (Shabbat, fol. 75a) that it is forbidden to learn from a mage (magus) may be part of the same Kulturkampf, and authentically Rav’s. Still, Rav may have seen this as a neutral element of the common Iranian-Mesopotamian culture rather than a specifically religious teaching. This also sheds light on the pervasiveness of Jewish acculturation; even Zoroastrian theological teachings were transmuted into neutral “knowledge.”

As to the non-elitist Babylonian Jews, we have a report regarding the ordinary Babylonian Jewish women. Rabbi Zera reports that the “daughters of Israel had undertaken to be so strict with themselves as to wait for seven [clean] days [after the appearance] of a drop of blood the size of a mustard seed [although biblically they are required only to separate for seven days from the onset of menstruation]” (Berakhot, fol. 31a; Megillah, fol. 28b; Niddah, fol. 66a). It is clear from Niddah (fol. 66a) that this stringency was a popular practice and not a rabbinic prohibition, probably in response to a “holier than thou” attitude perceived by the populace as emanating from their Persian neighbors. It seems that Babylonian Jewish women had internalized their Zoroastrian neighbors’ critique of Rabbinic Judaism’s relatively “easy-going” ways in this regard; Jewish women did not have to remain isolated on spare rations in a windowless hut for up to nine days, as was prescribed in Pahlavi Vendidād (Elman, 2004a, p. 34; but see Secunda, 2007a, pp. 144-89).

C. Intellectual-theological engagement. The question concerns engagement with Persian tradition on matters such as the authority and authenticity of rabbinic or Zoroastrian oral tradition, the issue of theodicy (a burning issue for nearly all Sasanian religions), the question of the nature of the future resurrection of the dead, where Manichaeism denied physical resurrection, in contrast to Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity, and the relation of outsiders (non-Zoroastrians to Zoroastrians and non-Jews to Jews) to the system of corpse-impurity, an issue over which the Zoroastrian and rabbinic elites were divided around the turn of the 5th century.

(a) Authority and authenticity of oral tradition. Fourth-century rabbinic sages faced theological challenges not only from Zoroastrianism, the state religion, but also from Manichaeism, a religion without state support, regarding which the Jewish rabbis and the Zoroastrian magi were on the same side.

In this environment, one can appreciate why Rava shows a deep sensitivity to the problems of rabbinic biblical exegesis. In an astounding statement, Rava privileges rabbinic oral teaching over Scripture (Eruvin, fol. 21b) and elsewhere argues that the rabbis’ decisions are more authoritative than Scripture itself, because they control its interpretation (Makkot, fol. 22b). He is one of only two Amoraim to whom the principle that “a verse does not depart from its plain sense” is attributed. He was sharply attentive to the problems involved in the study of legal biblical exegesis (Elman, 2003a, pp. 1854-55; idem, 2004a, pp. 38-43; Yevamot, fol. 11b).

The tomb of Daniel in Khuzestan in southwest Iran. The main structure (note cone-like dome) as it stands today (left) and Iranian pilgrims paying homage within the tomb of Daniel.

Ideally, a written form is the proper venue for the transmission of law; why then is the law of the Rabbis unwritten? Rava (Eruvin, fol. 21b) responds to this problem by quoting Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Of the making of books there is no end,” that is, rabbinic law is too voluminous to be reduced to writing. It is pertinent to recall that the largest Middle Persian compilation known to us is the Dēnkard, which runs to only 169,000 words (Cereti, p. 41). In contrast, the greatest compilation of Roman law, Justinian’s Digest of 534 CE, weighs in at about one million words, while the Talmud runs to 1,836,000 words. Based on a large ancient, probably eighth-century fragment of Talmud published a decade ago (Elman, 1999, pp. 74-75), which contained an average of 576 words per column, and assuming a Torah scroll-sized scroll as standard, it would have taken about ten and a half scrolls of that size for 2,522 columns. Aside from the technical problems, however, one must also note that Rava’s statement can be seen as a response to Mani’s critique of oral transmission.

As Jes Asmussen commented, “[Mani’s] immense confidence in the written tradition was something quite exceptional in the history of antiquity that never questioned the reliability and security of the oral tradition. … And, to take just one more example, the Dēnkard without hesitation states that the living spoken word is much more important than the written one” (Asmussen, p. 16; see Elman, 2007c, p. 178). Rabbi Nahman, Rava’s master, also faced the challenge of dualists of some sort, presumably Jewish, Christian, or Jewish-Christian Gnostics. He is reported as having warned that whoever can respond to the “heretics” (probably a Christian sect) as Rabbi Idit could, should respond; otherwise, he should not (Sanhedrin, fol. 38b). It may be that he considered himself as one of those unfit to respond.

(b) Resurrection of the dead. The extensive space given in the Talmud (Sanhedrin, fols. 90b-91b) to proving that resurrection of the dead is a biblically mandated doctrine, as well as Rava’s attributing its denial to Job (Bava batra, fol. 15a), in contrast to the Yerushalmi’s glancing treatment of the issue, may be due to the challenge of the Manichaean denial of resurrection of the body while affirming the resurrection of the soul (Sundermann, pp. 749-60).

(c) Theodicy. Rava’s statements regarding the problem of theodicy also address a troubling issue for everyone. Given the centrality of the problem of Evil in Zoroastrianism, indeed in all the religions of Late Antiquity, it is easy to see why Rava was so concerned with it, and why Rabbi Yosef in the generation before devised a theology of divine anger that acts independently of His will, apparently based on the demon Wrath (Xešm) in Zoroastrianism (Bava qamma, fol. 60a; Avodah zarah, fol. 4b). One of Rava’s most radical statements fits perfectly within the context of the Middle Persian debate on “fate” and “works,” and is almost certainly an Aramaic translation of the Middle persian zan ud frazand ud xwāstag ud xwadāyīh ud zīndagīh pad baxt (wife, and offspring, and property, and authority, and living by fate), which appears in Pahlavi Vendidād (5.9) and parallels (Dēnkard, pp. 174-75; Vidēvdād, p. 100; Zaehner, pp. 400-18; Elman, 2004a, pp. 50-52). In good Semitic fashion Rava selects three of them, namely offspring, life-span, and sustenance to astrology (Moed qatan, fol. 28a). His great-grandfather-in-law, Rav, selects wife and property (expressed as house and field, making up the number three (Sotah, fol. 2a), and authority was mentioned by Rav’s son-in-law (Berakhot, fol. 58a). Thus all five elements of the Zoroastrian saying appear in the Talmud.

Iranian Jews in a Synagogue in Tehran in the Fall of 2016 (Source: AIC).

D. Ritual acculturation, especially stringencies regarding menstrual impurity, the ritual use of a belt by Babylonian Jews, prospective and retrospective impurity and similar technical matters. Mention has already been made of one significant example of the influence of Zoroastrian ritual norms on the ordinary Jewish Babylonian woman and, perforce, the Babylonian man who could not have been happy about the additional week of abstinence. This indicates just how much the values of the surrounding culture had been internalized into the Jewish value system. Clearly, both sexes must have felt the force of the “holier than thou” argument.

When it comes to codification and analysis of rituals, we enter an even more complex area, one in which we may discern a welter of influences and counter-influence in both directions. Some points are clear; for example, it has long been apparent that the Talmud’s recommendation regarding the disposal of fingernail parings in Niddah, (fol. 17a) has a Zoroastrian origin. Another significant sign of acculturation is the adoption of the belt (Hebrew avnet, Aramaic hemyana, MP kustīg) by all sectors of Babylonian Jewish society, to the point that wearing a belt was considered a preparation for prayer (Shabbat, fol. 9b; Zevahim, fol. 19a; Elman, 2007c, pp. 181-82).

Michael Satlow has pointed out that the rabbinic emphasis on the severity of the sin of emitting seed vainly (hotzaʾat zerʿa le-vattalah) is due to the work of the editor and redactor(s) of Niddah (fol. 13a-b). He suggested that “perhaps they adopted this concept from Zoroastrian notions, to which, we may assume, they were exposed” (Satlow, 1995b, pp. 137-75). This involves the question of rabbinic and Zoroastrian system of purities. Unfortunately, detailed comparisons will only be possible when significant Zoroastrian texts, especially Pahlavi Vendidād, are critically edited and analyzed. In the meantime, one may only make some general observations. The two systems, first of all, operate with similar basic concepts, including human corpses (tumʾat met), dead animals (tumʾat nevelah, both nasā “corpse, carrion” in MP), and a menstruant woman (niddah, MP zan ī daštān), all of which are considered sources of impurity. Because the basic biological processes that both systems must deal with are identical, though their construction of impurity may be different, the resulting systems will be sufficiently close to warrant extended comparative study. This is particularly important because the Zoroastrian system, while employing an elliptical style similar to rabbinic texts, lacks any medieval commentaries and comprehensive works for the elucidation of rabbinic discussions.

The above photo taken on November 20, 2014, was featured in an article by Ishaan Tharoor in the Washington Post entitled “Iran unveils a memorial honoring Jewish heroes” (December 18, 2014). As noted by Ishaan Tharoor, the above shows an Iranian Jewish man holding a Torah scroll at the Molla Agha Baba Synagogue, in the city of Yazd 420 miles (676 kilometers) south of capital Tehran, Iran (Photo: Washington Post & Ebrahim Noroozi/AP). It would appear that, excluding exceptions such as the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor, reports and images such as the above are routinely ignored by mainstream Western press and media.

Both systems struggled with the problem of defining the onset and limiting the extent to which impurity may be said to exist. Impurity held much more serious consequences for the Zoroastrians, since, theologically, impurity was a weapon of Ahriman, while, for the rabbis, impurity was a strictly technical category. Thus, Ohrmazd rejects extending the range of impurity, “for if these corpses, namely, dog-borne, bird-borne, wolf-borne, wind-borne, and fly-borne, were to make a man guilty, right away my entire existence with bones…every soul would be shuddering (in anger and fear), every body would be forfeit, by the large amount of these corpses which lie dead upon this earth” (Vidēvdād 5.4). It would seem that this passage sparkled questions on the part of Mahozan rabbis, problems that the rabbinic system lacked the sources to answer (Bava batra, fol. 22a; Menahot, fol. 69a-b; Bezah, fol. 7a; Eruvin, fol. 104b).

E. Legal accommodation. The issue of legal accommodation presents itself as rabbinic sages meet the challenge of Sasanian law and the government-sponsored law courts, adopt a Sasanian legal institution, and promulgate legal decisions that were untouched by such considerations but shed light on the common ambient culture. It does not concern domains such as magic, folklore, or any ordinary elements of daily life, because these influences are to be expected even in the absence of intense acculturation (Gafni, pp. 161-76; Bohak, pp. 406-25, Shaked, 1985; idem, 1994; idem, 2003; Kiperwasser and Shapira; Herman, 2008).

(a) Parallels and convergences: The rabbinic category of the “rebellious wife” (moredetKetubot, fol. 62a-62b) finds its exact counterpart in atarsāgāyīh, “insubordination,” to which an entire chapter of Mādayān ī hazār dādistān (5:6-8) is devoted, with similar definitions and penalties. In this case, as in others, the differences are sometimes as illuminating as are the similarities. The rabbinic concept of onaʾah, “overreaching” in sales, may be paralleled by Mādayān ī hazār dādistān (37:2-10), with the same three-day period stipulated and a similar profit-margin (Bava metzia, fols. 49b-50a, 69a). Then there is the institution of meʾun (refusal), whereby a underage girl could be married off by her mother or brothers, but could, upon reaching her majority, leave her husband (Mishnah yevamot 13:1, 4, 7; Yevamot, fol. 107a; for the parallel, see Mādayān 89:15-17).

Some parallels involve matters with which every legal system must deal. Similar economic, social, and religious conditions produce similar concerns, but studying each one in isolation precludes gaining a complete picture of the conditions under which each system developed, and the way that each responded to common problems. It is likely that the rabbis and the Iranian jurisconsults were faced with a rash of fraudulent land-sales, with people claiming to own the land they did not, as evidenced by Bava metzia (fol. 14a-b) and Mādayān ī hazār dādistān (8:13-9:5), and due to the hunger for arable land in Jewish Babylonia (because of the density of population) and Iran (because of the arid conditions of its plateaus and mountains; Elman, 2004b, pp. 101-2).

Portrait of Iranian Jews in the city of Hamedan in 1918 (Source: Public Domain and originally from National Library of Iran).

(b) Samuel’s dictum that “the [civil] law of the government is [valid] law” (Nedarim, fol. 28a; Gittin, fol. 10b; Bava qamm, fol. 113a; see especially, Bava batra, fol. 54b) indicates that, already early on in the Sasanian period, one of the greatest Babylonian rabbinic authorities was willing to come to terms with the new regime and its legal system. This attribution is confirmed by his ruling regarding land tenure along the river banks near Nehardeʿa, his hometown.

(c) Land tenure and private “eminent domain.” Rabbinic law recognizes the right of eminent domain provided to partners who dig a canal to the depth of a “horse’s neck.” Although the legal and public policy issues are too complex to discuss here, it is clear that the rabbis were quite aware of Sasanian law and legal terminology (MP gōš bālāy, Aramaic maya ad meloʾ tzavarei susya, which complement each other and cannot be understood fully in isolation (see Mādayān 85:8-11; Elman, 2004b, pp. 102-49).

(d) Conditional and returnable gifts. As noted above, Rabbi Nahman contracted temporary marriages and also introduced the Sasanian institution of temporary or conditional “ownership” in his legal decisions (Bava batra, fol. 137b), especially in the area of ritual law (Elman, 2008, pp. 150-95).

(e) Meeting the competition of Persian courts. According to earlier rabbinic law, when a donor who had made a gift in contemplation of death unexpectedly recovered, he could not regain his property, something the Persian courts would allow. It is important to note that Rabbi Nahman modified these earlier rules so as to make abandoning rabbinic law in favor of a resort to a Persian court less advantageous to such recovered donors (Yaron, 1980, pp. 85-89). In the Talmud, his explicit references to “Persian law” are always interpreted negatively (Bava batra, fol. 173a-b; Bava qamma, fol. 58b; Shevuot, fol. 34b), but these seem to reflect the views of Babylonian Talmud’s late 5th-century redactors living with anti-Jewish decrees; it is unlikely that he expressed these negative and inaccurate views. For example, it is clear that Persian law did not obligate a surety to pay the lender even when the borrower was solvent (as Bava batra, fol. 173b, would have it; see Mādayān 57:2-12), because no one would agree to be a surety under such circumstances, thus shutting off the flow of credit. Abaye’s (d. 338) more nuanced comments regarding the Persian courts in Gittin (fol. 28b) are thus more accurate, as is his knowledge of Persian legal terminology (pursišn-nāmag, see Bava batra, fol. 173b; Mādayān 34:6; Elman, 2006c, pp. 31-55).

(f) Keeping estates together. Study of Sasanian law may be helpful in placing rabbinic legislation in its proper context in a broader sense. John A. Crook (p. 118) observed that no fewer than eleven of the books of Justinian’s Digest are devoted to questions of succession and inheritance. Likewise, a third of the folios of the Mādayān ī hazār dādistān (Book of a thousand judgements), the only Sasanian law book that has reached us, contain mentions of stūrīh (trusteeship). In contrast, the rabbinic parallel to the Sasanian law book, the Mishnah, devotes only two of its 530 chapters to the subject of inheritance, and very little of the rest. Moreover, it is clear that the Talmuds’ attention is devoted to the family farm and not large estates. The difference in social policy and class interest could not be more striking. However, in one striking instance, Rabbi Nahman takes the Sasanian landowners’ point of view (Bava batra, fol. 13a-b; Elman, 2007d, pp. 85-86).


The evidence cited here, and more in the studies on which it is based, indicates that Middle Persian attitudes and doctrines made inroads in many areas of Babylonian rabbinic culture, in law, in theology, and in general cultural attitudes. This is all to be expected, not only because of their long, relatively peaceful sojourn in Mesopotamia, but also because Zoroastrianism was a more benign presence than either Roman paganism or Christianity. Its theological and ritual structure was more in tune with that of Rabbinic Judaism than Roman paganism was, and while it shared an expectation of a messianic advent with Judaism, that advent was in the future, and therefore not a subject for acrimonious debate as it was with Christianity.


Ādurbād Ēmēdān, Dēnkard, tr. Shaul Shaked as The Wisdom of the Sasanian Sages (Dēnkard VI) by Aturpāt-i Ēmētān, Boulder, Col., 1970.

Behramgore T. Anklesaria, transc. and tr., Pahlavi Vendidâd (Zand-î Jvît-Dêv-Dât), ed. Dinshah D. Kapadia, Bombay, 1949.

Jes Peter Asmussen, Manichaean Literature: Representative Texts Chiefly from Middle Persian and Parthian Writings, Delmar, New York, 1975.

Mosche Beer, “The Decrees of Kartir on the Babylonian Jews,” Tabriz 54, 1982, pp. 536-39.

Gideon Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic: A History, Cambridge, 2008.

Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London, 1979.

Robert Brody, “Judaism in Sasanian Babylonia: A Case Study in Religious Coexistence,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica: Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture throughout the Ages II, Jerusalem, 1990, pp. 52-62.

John A. Crook, Law and Life of Rome, 90 B.C.-A.D. 212, Ithaca, 1967.

Carlo G. Cereti, La Lettaratura Pahlavi: Introduzione ai testi con riferimenti alla storia degli studi e alla tradizione manoscritta, Milan, 2001.

Dēnkard, see Ādurbād Ēmēdān.

Yaakov Elman, “Orality and the Redaction of the Babylonian Talmud,” OralTradition 14/1, 1999, pp. 52-99.

Idem, “Classic Rabbinic Interpretation,” Jewish Study Bible, Oxford and New York, 2003a, pp. 1844-862.

Idem, “Marriage and Marital Property in Rabbinic and Sasanian Law,” in Catherine Hezser, ed., Rabbinic Law in Its Roman and Near Eastern Context, Tübingen, 2003b, pp. 227-76.

Idem, “Acculturation to Elite Persian Norms in the Babylonian Jewish Community of Late Antiquity,” in Ephraim B. Halivni, Zvi A. Steinfeld, and Yaakov Elman, eds., Netiʾot David: sefer ha-yovel le-David ha-Livni: Jubilee volume for David Weiss Halivni, Jerusalem, 2004a, pp. 31-56.

Idem, “Up to the Ears, in Horses’ Necks: On Sasanian Agricultural Policy and Private ‘Eminent Domain’,” Jewish Studies: An Internet Journal 3, 2004b, 95-149.

Idem, “R. Yosef in a Period of Divine Anger (Hebrew),” Annual of Bar-Ilan University: Studies in Judaica and the Humanities 30-31: In Memory of Professor Meyer Simcha Feldblum, Ramat Gan, Israel, 2006a, pp. 93-104.

Idem, “Scripture Versus Contemporary Needs: A Sasanian/Zoroastrian Example,” Cardozo Law Review 28, 2006b, pp. 153-69.

Idem, “The Babylonian Yeshivot in the Amoraic and Post-Amoraic Era [Functioning as Courts] (Hebrew),” in Emmanuel Etkes, ed., Yeshivot and Batei midrash, Jerusalem, 2006c, pp. 31-55.

Idem, “‘He in His Cloak and She in Her Cloak’: Conflicting Images of Sexuality in Sasanian Mesopotamia,” in Rivka Ulmer, ed., Discussing Cultural Influences: Text, Context, and Non-Text in Rabbinic Judaism: Proceedings of a Conference on Rabbinic Judaism at Bucknell University, Lanham, Maryland, 2007a, pp. 129-64.

Idem, “A Tale of Two Cities: Mahoza and Pumbedita (Hebrew),” in David Golinkin et al., eds., Essays in Jewish Studies in Honor of Prof. Shamma Friedman, Jerusalem, 2007b, pp. 3-38.

Idem, “Middle Persian Culture and Babylonian Sages: Accomodation and Resistance in the Shaping of Rabbinic Legal Tradition,” in Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffe, eds., Cambridge Companion to the Talmud andRabbinic Literature, Cambridge and New York, 2007c, pp. 165-97.

Idem, “The Socioeconomics of Babylonian Heresy,” in Alyssa Gray and Bernard Jackson, eds., Jewish Law Association Studies XVII: Studies in the Mediaeval Halakhah in Honor of Stephen M. Passamaneck, 2007d, pp. 80-126.

Idem, “Who Were the Kings of East in West in Ber 7a?: Roman Religion, Syrian Gods and Zoroastrianism in the Babylonian Talmud,” in B. Bar-Kochba, S. J. D. Cohen, and J. Schwartz, eds., Judaism in the Ancient World, Leiden, 2007e, pp. 43-80.

Idem, “Returnable Gifts in Rabbinic and Sasanian Law,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica VI, Jerusalem, 2008, pp. 150-95.

Idem, “The Other in the Mirror: Iranians and Jews View One Another: Questions of Identity, Conversion and Exogamy in the Fifth-Century Iranian Empire,” in Carol Altman Bromberg, Nicholas Sims-Williams, and Ursula Sims-Williams, eds., Iranian and Zoroastrian Studies in Honor of Prods Oktor Skjærvø, Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19-20, 2009-10.

Idem, “Safron, Spices, and Sorceresses: Magic Bowls and the Bavli,” in Kimberly Stratton and Dayna Kalleres, eds., Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in Antiquity (forthcoming).

Idem, The Hērbedestān in the Hērbedestān: Priestly Teaching from the Avesta to the Zand,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica VII (forthcoming).

Idem, “Toward an Intellectual History of Sasanian Law: An Intergenerational Dispute in Hērbedestān 9 and Its Rabbinic Parallels,” in Carol Bakhos and Rahim Shayegan, eds., The Talmud in its Iranian Context, Tübingen, 2010, pp. 21-57.

S. Y. Friedman, “An Ancient Scroll Fragment (BHul 101a-105a) and the Rediscovery of the Babylonian Branch of Tannaitic Hebrew,” Jewish Quarterly Review 86, 1995, pp. 9-50.

Isaiah Gafni, Yehude Bavel bi-tekufat ha-Talmud: haye ha-hevrah veha-ruah (The Jews of Babylonia in teh Talmudic Era: A Social and Cultural History), Jerusalem, 1990.

Hērbedestān, see Kotwal et al.

Geoffery Herman, “The Exilarchate in the Sasanian Era,” Ph. D. diss., Hebrew University, 2005.

Idem, “The Story of Rav Kahana (BT Baba Qamma 117a-b) in Light of Armeno-Parthian Sources,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica VI, 2008, pp. 53-86.

Mahmoud Jaafari-Dehaghi, Dādestān ī dēnigTranscription, Translation and Commentary, Paris, 1998.

Lindsay Jones, Mircea Eliade, and Charls Adams, eds., Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., 15 vols., Detroit, 2005.

Reuven Kipperwasser and Dan Shapira, “Irano-Talmudica I – The Three-legged Ass and ‘Ridy’ in B. Taʾanith: Some Observations about Mythic Hydrology in the Babylonian Talmud and in Ancient Iran,” Association for Jewish Studies Review32, 2008, pp. 101-16.

Firoze M. Kotwal, Philip Kreyenbroek, and James R. Russell, The Hērbedestān and the Nērangestān I: Hērbedestān, Studia Iranica 10, Paris, 1992.

Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China: A Historical Survey, Manchester, 1985.

Maria Macuch, Das sasanidische Rechtsbuch “Mātakdān i Hazār Dātistān” (Teil II), Deutsche Morgenlädische Gesellschaft, Wiesbaden, 1981. Idem, Rechtskasuistik und Gerichtspraxis zu Beginn des siebenten Jahrhunderts in Iran: Die Rechtssammlung des Farrohmard i Wahrāmān, Wiesbaden, 1993.

Idem, “Iranian Legal Terminology in the Babylonian Talmud in the Light of Sasanian Jurisprudence,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-JudaicaIV, 1999, pp. 91-101.

Idem, “The Talmudic Expression ‘Servant of the Fire’ in the Light of Pahlavi Legal Sources,” in Studies in Honor of Shaul Shaked, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 26, 2002, pp. 109-29.

Idem, “On the Treatment of Animals in Zoroastrian Law,” in Alois van Tongerloo, ed., Iranica Selecta: Studies in Honor of Professor Wojciech Skalmowski on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, Silk Road Studies VIII, Turnhout, 2003, pp. 167-90.

Idem, “An Iranian Legal Term in the Babylonian Talmud and in Sasanian Jurisprudence: dastwar(īh),” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica VI, Jerusalem, 2008.

Idem, “The Hērbedestān as a Legal Source: A Section on the Inheritance of a Convert in Zoroastrianism,” in Carol Altman Bromberg, Nicholas Sims-Williams, and Ursula Sims-Williams, eds., Iranian and Zoroastrian Studies in Honor of Prods Oktor Skjærvø, Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19, 2009.

Idem, “Allusions to Sasanian Law in the Babylonian Talmud,” in Carol Bakhos and Rahim Shayegan, eds., The Talm ud in its Iranian Context,, Tübingen, 2010, pp. 178-205

Mādayān ī hazār dādistān, see Perikhanian.

Mahnaz Moazami, “Evil Animals in the Zoroastrian Religion,” in History of Religions 44/4, 2005, pp. 300-17.

Idem, ed. and tr., Pahlavi Vidēvdād (forthcoming).

Jacob Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia, 5 vols., Leiden, 1965-70.

Anahit Perikhanian, tr., The Book of A Thousand Judgements: A Sasanian Law-book, tr. Nina Garsoian, Costa Mesa, California, 1997.

E. S. Rosenthal, “For the Talmudic Dictionary,” Irano-Talmudica, Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 13-38 (in Hebrew with Hebrew numbering).

Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, Baltimore: 2003.

James R. Russell, “Ezekiel and Iran,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica V, Jerusalem, 2003, pp. 1-15. Michael L. Satlow, Tasting the DishRabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality, Atlanta, 1995a.

Idem, “Wasted Seed: The History of a Rabbinic Idea,” Hebrew Union College Anual65, 1995b, pp. 137-75.

Adiel Schremer, “How Much Jewish Polygyny in Roman Palestine?,” in Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 63, 1997-2001, pp. 181-223.

Samuel I. Secunda, “DashtanaKi Derekh Nashim Liʾ: A Study of Babylonian Rabbinic Laws of Menstruation in Relation to Corresponding Zoroastrian Texts,” Ph.D. diss., Yeshiva University, 2007.

Idem, “Talmudic Text and Iranian Context: On the Development of Two Talmudic Narratives (b. Nid. 20b; b. San. 37a),” Association for Jewish Studies Review 33, 2009, pp. 40-70.

Idem, “The Sasanian ‘Stam’” Orality and the Composition of Babylonian Rabbinic and Zoroastrian Legal Literature,” in Carol Bakhos and Rahim Shayegan, eds., The Talmud in its Iranian Context, Tübingen, 2010, pp. 140-60.

Shaul Shaked, “Bagdana, King of the Demons, and Other Iranian Terms in Babylonian Aramaic Magic,” in Papers in Honor of Professor Mary Boyce, 2 vols., Acta Iranica 24-25, Leiden, 1985, II, pp. 511-25.

Idem, “Zoroastrian Polemics against Jews in the Sasanian and early Islamic Period,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica II, 1990, pp. 85-104.

Idem, Dualism in Transformation: Varieties of Religion in Sasanian Iran, London, 1993.

Idem, “Items of Dress and Other Objects in Common Use: Iranian Loanwords in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica III, 1994, pp. 106-17.

Idem, “Jewish Sigillography,” in Rika Gyselen, ed., Au Carrefour des Religions: Melanges Offerts a Philippe Gignoux, Leuven, 1995, pp. 233-55.

Idem, “Between Iranian and Aramaic: Iranian Words Concerning Food in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, with Some Notes on the Aramaic Heterograms in Iranian,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, eds., Irano-Judaica V, Jerusalem: 2003, pp. 120-37.

Mansour Shaki, “The Denkard Account of the History of the Zoroastrian Scriptures,” Archiv Orientalni 49, 1981, pp. 114-25.

Prods Oktor Skjærvø, “Zarathustra in the Avesta and in Manicheism: Irano-Manichaica IV”, in Convegno internazionale sul tema: La Persia e l’Asia Centrale: Da Alessandro al X secolo, Roma, Atti dei Convegni Lincei 127, Rome 1996, 597-628.

Idem, “The Videvdad: Its Ritual-Mythical Significance,” in Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis and Sarah Stewart, eds., Birth of the Persian Empire. The Age of the Parthian, London and New York, 2007, pp. 105-41.

Idem, “On of the Pahlavi Scholastic Literature,” in Carol Bakhos and Rahim Shayegan, eds., The Talmud in its Iranian Context, Tübingen, 2010, pp. 178-205.

Werner Sundermann, “A Manichaean View of the Resurrection of the Body,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute, N.S. 10, 1996 [1998], pp. 187-94.

Yuhan S-B, Vevaina., “Studies in Zoroastrian Exegesis and Hermeneutics with A Critical Edition of the Sūdgar Nask of Dēnkard Book 9,” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2007.

Idem, “Eschatalogy and Exegesis in Late Antique Zoroastrianism,” in Carol Altman Bromberg, Nicholas Sims-Williams, and Ursula Sims-Williams, eds., Iranian and Zoroastrian Studoes in Honor of Prods Oktor Skjærvø, Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19-20, 2009-10.

Idem, “Textual Taxonomies, Cosmological Deixis, and Canonical Commentaries in Zoroastrianism: The Ahuna Vairiia Prayer and the 21 Nasks of the Dēn,” in Philippa Townsend and Moulie Vidas, eds., Revelation, Literature and Community in Antiquity, 2009b.

Idem, “Scripture Versus Contemporary (Scholarly) Needs: The Place of Traditional Hermeneutics in Zoroastrian Studies,” in Steven Fine and Samuel Secunda, eds., Shoshanat Yaakov: Ancient Jewish and Iranian Studies in Honor of Professor Yaakov Elman, Leiden: 2009c.

Vidēvdād, see Anklesaria.

Edward William West, ed. and tr., Pahlavi Texts II, Sacred Books of the East, Delhi, 1994, chap. 78, pp. 227-32.

Josef Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia: From 550 BC to 650 AD, London and New York, 2001, pp. 215-16.

A. V. Williams, The Pahlavi Rivāyat Accompanying the Dādestān ī Dēnīg, 2 vols., Copenhagen, 1990.

Reuven Yaron, Gifts in Contemplation of Death in Jewish and Roman Law, Oxford, 1960.

Robert C. Zaehner, Zurvanism: A Zoroastrian Dilemma, repr. with a new Introd., New York, 1972.

Iranian-speaking Jewish Peoples of the Caucasus

The article below originally appeared in the Jewish Encyclopedia in 1906 and is available (unedited and full text) on-line. Despite the article’s age, it remains a valuable resource for scholars and laypersons interested in the legacy of Caucasian Jews, many of whom continue to speak Persian and other Iranian dialects.

Kindly note that excepting the two tables displayed in the original Jewish Encyclopedia article, the pictures and captions below do not appear in the original Jewish Encyclopedia article (in-print and on-line versions).


A division of Russia, bounded on the north by European Russia; on the east by the Caspian sea; on the south by Persia and Asiatic Turkey; and on the west by the Black sea. It consists of six governments, four provinces, and two districts. The Jewish inhabitants, according to the census of 1897, numbered 58,471, or 6.3 per cent of the total population (“Voskhod,” 1902, No. 3). These figures are probably too low.

Caucasian JewsUndated photo (late 19th or early 20th century?) Mountain Jews of the Caucasus conversing and resting (Source: Public Domain). The “Mountain Jews” above are actually the descendants of the Jews of Iran whose origins in that land go back to the pre-Islamic era. Their language is Juhuri which is a Persian-based dialect mixed with Hebrew. Note that these Jews are distinct from the mainly Georgian Jews of the Caucasus being discussed in this article. The Juhuri-speaking Jews are mainly located in the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan (known as Arran and the Khanates until May 1918) as well as Daghestan. 

The exact number of the Caucasian Jews is not easy to determine. Some of them (in the southern provinces) have adopted the Mohammedan religion; while others (in Georgia) have embraced Christianity. They are also often confounded with Jewish immigrants from European Russia. Von der Hoven estimates the number of the native Jews of the Caucasus to be about 100,000 (“Budushchnost,” 1900, No. 52).

Video posted by the Endangered Language Alliance [ELA] of Juhuri instructor Simon Mardkhayev. Speaking in Juhuri (A Persian-based dialect mixed with Hebrew), Mardkhayev is telling a story of hope from his childhood, in the Juhuri language spoken by the Jews of the Republic of Azerbaijan (known as Arran and the Khanates until May 1918) and Daghestan. Recorded at ELA on January 12, 2016.

The following table illustrates the distribution of the Jews of the Caucasus among the various governments, provinces, and districts according to the censuses of 1886 and 1891-92:

Table 1-Jewish Encyclopedia-1906Table showing Distribution of Jews in the Caucasus (Source: Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906).

Supposed Descent from Lost Ten Tribes

Some of the Caucasian Jews claim to be descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, which were taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar; while others (particularly the Georgians) are equally certain of their descent from the Israelites who were taken from Palestine by Shalmaneser. It is hard to determine whether this belief is based upon valid tradition or whether it is of later origin, and an attempt, by means of bad philology, to connect the “Habor,” near which river the exiles were settled, with “Iberia,” the name by which the Caucasus is known to classical writers. In the Georgian language the Jews are called “Huria,” a term which is related to “Iberia” (Koch, “Reise Durch Russland,” Preface, p. ix.).

Jewish Type Among Caucasian Peoples

The Russian archeologist and linguist Vsevolod Miller believes that a large Jewish population formerly existed in that part of Media which was later called “Atturpatakan,” and which is at present known under the name of “Azerbeijan,” and that this country was probably the cradle of the Caucasian Jews. He thinks that they have preserved the old Semitic type to a more marked degree than the European Jews. The presence of a distinctive Jewish type among many of the Caucasian peoples has long been noticed by travelers and ethnographers. It is especially interesting, as some of these people, the Armenians, Georgians, and Ossetes, for instance, are not of one and the same race. Baron Peter Uslar suggests that during the past two thousand years Jewish tribes often emigrated to the Caucasus (“Russische Revue,” xx. 42, xxi. 300). Miller is of the opinion that in very remote times they emigrated thither from Media. All the Armenian and Georgian historians speak of the existence of a large Jewish population in Transcaucasia until the beginning of the present era.

When St. Nina came to the city of Urbnis in Georgia from Jerusalem in 314, she is said to have spoken to the Jews in the Hebrew language (“Histoire de la Georgie,” translated by Brosset, I. i. 31, 37, 54, 64, 93, 100, 104-120). When the Persians took possession of Transcaucasia in 366, the Jews adopted the old Persian language, which they called “Parsee” or “Tat,” from which they formed a jargon with an admixture of words taken from the Bible and from languages of local tribes. They write this jargon in Hebrew square characters.

Figure-8-Dagestani-Jewish-WomanA Daghestani Jewish woman of the Northern Caucasus enjoys Chai (Persian-Turkish for “tea”) outside a local Synagogue (Photo Source: The JC). Daghestani Jews speak a Persian dialect that is often intelligible to the Persian speakers of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikestan.

From the Arabic writers Mas’udi, Ibn Ḥauḳal, and from the “Derbend Nameh” (a Persian history of Derbend) it is evident that the Arabs, when they conquered Daghestan in the eighth century, found a large number of Jews there. According to Pantyukhov (probably following Quatrefages, “Observations Anthropologiques au Caucase,” Tiflis, 1893, cited in “Archiv für Anthropologie,” xxvii. 448,) the Caucasian Jews may be considered descendants of the Chaldeans (early Babylonians), who originally dwelt on the upper Euphrates and in the vicinity of Lake Van, but who in later, though even still remote, times intermixed with the native Caucasians. In the course of time many of these Jews renounced Judaism and embraced. Mohammedanism. It is probable that the Khevsurs and a portion of the Swanetes and of the Lesghians are of Jewish descent. In the fifth century the rulers of Georgia claimed that their ancestors came from Jerusalem. The Chaldean has little in common with the Arabo-Semitic type. Erekert, as the result of a comparison of the head measurements of the Caucasian Jews with those of the other inhabitants of the districts in which they dwell, gives the following data:

Table 2-Anthro Data CaucasusTable showing physical anthropological characteristics of various Caucasian peoples (Source: Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906).

If the shape of the head be taken as a standard of a fine type, the mountain Jew may be considered to rank first among the Caucasian races, which are classified by Erckert in the following order: mountain Jews, Armenians, Kumyks, Georgians, Azerbeijan Tatars, Ossetes, Circassians, Tshechentzy, Lesghians, Nogaians, Kalmucks (“Der Kaukasus und Seine Völker,” pp. 370-377).

The stature of the Jews in the district of Kuba (government of Baku) is 1,618-1,621 mm.; that of the Jews in the government of Kutais, 1,630; of those of Daghestan, 1,644. These three groups exhibit slightly varying types; they have completely adopted the language of the people among whom they live (Pantyukhov, l.c.).

Mountain Jews (“Bergjuden”) are those of the Caucasian Jews who live in villages (“auls”) and some towns of the provinces of Daghestan, Tersk, Kuban, and in the governments of Baku and Yelisavetpol, and who speak an Iranian language, a dialect of the Tat. The Tats themselves are of Iranian origin, but have intermarried with Jews. They speak the same dialect (Tat mingled with Hebrew) as the mountain Jews. They probably arrived in the Caucasus with the Jews in the times of the Achæaemenidæ, having been sent to guard the northern boundary of Persia on the Caspian sea. According to Anisimov, the Tats of today were Jews when they arrived in the Caucasus, and they embraced Mohammedanism only when the Arabs conquered the country. They themselves cherish this belief, and carefully preserve their Hebrew books (Hahn, “Aus dem Kaukasus,” p. 181).

Figure-1-Tat JewsA painting of Iranian speaking Jews of the Eastern and Northern Caucasus, also known as “Mountain Jews” (Photo Source: The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center).

Ḥasdai ben Isaac, in his letters to the king of the Chazars (about 960), says that, according to a tradition, the Chazars formerly lived in the mountains of Seir (Serir in the eastern Caucasus). Miller is of the opinion that the Jews of the Caucasus introduced Judaism into the kingdom of the Chazars, and that the Jews of Daghestan originated in Azerbeijan. He refers to Esther iii. 8 and to II Kings xvii. 6. He thinks that old Jewish colonies in the Caucasus existed in Tabasseran and in Kaitak, in which region there is a place still called “Shuit-Katta” (Jewish pass). About three hundred years ago many Jews emigrated thence to Majlis, the capital of the Tatars, and a little later to Jangi-kent (= “New Settlement”).

Large Jewish communities existed in the ninth century in Tiflis, Bardaa, Derbend, and other places in the Caucasus. According to Benjamin of Tudela (1160-73), the power of the exilarch extended over all the communities of Armenia, Kota, and Georgia. Guillaume de Rubruquis in 1254 found a large Jewish population in the eastern Caucasus.

Figure-6-Jewish girls of Caucasus-1913Jewish girls from the Caucasus in 1913 (Photo Source: Public Domain).

The traveler Judah Chorny also concludes that the Jews arrived in the Caucasus before the destruction of the First Temple, and that up to the fourth century of the common era they lived under Persian protection. At the end of the Sassanian dynasty, when Tatar hordes overran Persia, and the CaucasianJews were driven from their homes, the latter came in contact with their coreligionists in Babylonia, and adopted the rabbinical teachings as religious law. Soon they began to study the Talmud, of which they had an intimate knowledge when Eldad ha-Dani (ninth century) visited them. This is also corroborated by Benjamin of Tudela and Pethahiah of Regensburg. In the centuries when the great Talmudic schools flourished in Babylon, many eminent Talmudists lived in Derbent and the ancient Shemacha, in the government of Baku. In many regions in the government of Baku, where at present there are no mountain Jews, ruins of their auls and graves, and traces of irrigation trenches, etc., are to be found. The local Mohammedans still call these ruins by their old Jewish names; e.g., “Chifut Tebe” (Jewish Hill), “Chifut Ḳabur” (Jewish Grave), etc. In some parts of Daghestan the Mohammedan religion has supplanted Judaism; but in many Mohammedan families are to be found Jewish books inherited from Jewish ancestors.

Superstitious Beliefs

The Caucasian Jews can not be classed among the Karaites, as they still adhere closely to the Talmud. There is no question, however, that at the present time their Talmudic knowledge is not extensive and that they have added demonology to Judaism. Owing to this comparative ignorance they are nicknamed by the European Russian Jews “Byky” (oxen). The Jews of Daghestan and Baku believe in good and in evil spirits; e.g., Seer-Ovy (the spirit of the water), Ider, Hudur-bai, Kes-sen-bai, and others. The most venerated is the mighty Num-Negyr (the spirit of travelers and of the family), which name signifies “unutterable” (literally, “do not take a name”). A belief in perpetual warfare between the good and the evil spirits is deep-rooted among the Jews as well as among the Mohammedans of the Caucasus. According to Erckert, the Caucasian Jews in the times of the Seleucids were in communication with Palestine. They helped to spread Christianity in Armenia, Georgia, and the highlands of Albania. The mountain Jews are probably later emigrants, who in the eighth century and at the beginning of the ninth settled in the region north of Derbent. It was not until the end of the sixteenth century that they removed to the neighboring Majlis. Another stream of emigrants may have followed about 1180 from Jerusalem and Bagdad via Persia. Erckert and many others are of the opinion that the Caucasian Jews amalgamated at an early date with the native tribes. It is certain that among the peoples of the Caucasus the Jewish type is everywhere represented, and that even among Christian and Mohammedan tribes many Jewish customs and habits have been preserved to the present day. Among the Ossetes the old Mosaic law of levirate marriage still exists, which, according to Chorny, the mountain Jews also strictly observe. Even the outward appearance and the manner of speech of the Ossetes resemble those of the Jews. Many of their villages bear Hebrew names, and the marriage and funeral ceremonies correspond in many respects with those of the ancient Hebrews. The same may be said about the Tshechentzy.

Figure-7-Mountain Jews of GubaA 1920s photo of a Jewish school in Quba in modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan (known as Arran and the Khanates until 1918) (Photo Source: Public Domain). Quba continues to feature a large Jewish population and is considered ot be among the largest Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union.

The Caucasian Jews differ greatly from the European Jews. Their language, dress, education, employments, and their whole character render them almost a separate people; and they even differ greatly among themselves.

Manners and Customs

The Georgian, Lezghian, and Ossete Jews differ as much from one another as do the countries in which they live. The Jews of Daghestan have nothing in common with the foregoing, either in language, dress, mode of life, or moral views. They differ little from the other warlike mountain tribes among whom they dwell. They only differ from their Mohammedan and Christian neighbors in their adoption of the Tat language. They all dress in the Circassian style, and go about armed with daggers, pistols, and swords; even being armed when they go to bed or when praying in the synagogue. They are skilled horse-men. Their occupations are mostly dyeing, cattle-breeding, gardening, and viticulture. They own small farms, and rent land from their Mohammedan neighbors, by whom they are much oppressed. They raise tobacco, and manufacture excellent weapons. Even their ḥakams know how to handle the spade, the hoe, and the hammer.

 Figure-2-Bukhara JewImage of a Bukhara Jew in Central Asia at the turn of the 19th century. The Jews of Bukhara are located in not just in the city of Bukhara but also in other cities of Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Bukhara Jews speak a Jewish vernacular of the Samarkand-Bukhara dialect of the Perso-Tajik language (Photo Source: The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center).

Owing to their persecutions under Mohammedan rule, the mountain Jews in the Russo-Caucasian wars always sided with the Russians; and the Russian government, after the conquest of the Caucasus, in acknowledgment of their valuable services, granted them equal rights with the other Caucasian tribes. Lately, however, these rights have been curtailed.

Mountain and Georgian Jews

In contradistinction to the mountain Jews, the Georgian Jews have always exhibited great patriotism, and have fought against the Russians. Their love for the fatherland is as proverbial as their bravery in war. Notwithstanding his war-like character, however, the Georgian Jew becomes penitent and humble in the synagogue. Here he may be seen to weep for the unfortunate destiny of his coreligionists scattered over the world. Georgian Jews are found in Tiflis, Kutais, Suran, Karasubazar, and the surrounding villages. Besides the Georgian and mountain Jews, mention should here be made of the Caucasian Subbotniki (Sabbatarians), who are probably descendants of the Chazars. Their type is more Slavonic than Semitic, but their mode of life is Jewish: they not only keep the Sabbath strictly, but also observe all the Mosaic laws and many rabbinical precepts. In Tiflis in 1894 their community numbered thirty families, besides many who lived outside the village and occupied themselves with cattle-breeding, agriculture, and the cultivation of the vine. They have the same prayers as the Russian Jews, but use the Russian language instead of the Hebrew. Some of them send their sons to Wilna for a higher rabbinical education. They consider it a great honor to intermarry with rabbinical Jews; but such marriages are rare. The Georgian and especially the mountain Jews deem it beneath their dignity to intermarry with the Subbotniki.

Figure-5-Jew of Georgia[Click to Enlarge] Late 19th century photo of a Jewish man from the Southern Georgian Akhaltsikhe region (Photo Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

In recent years, with the improvements in communication,outside interest in the Caucasian Jews has become more extensive. Their coreligionists have endeavored to spread culture among them, while the Zionist organizations have established some schools for the rational study of Hebrew. For further details reference may be made to the articles on the respective cities, provinces, and peoples.


Gärber, Izvyestie o Nakhodyashchikhsya s Zapadnoi Storony Kaspiskavo Morya Narodakh. . . . 1760, pp. 305-307;

Radde, Vier Vorträge über den Kaukasus, in Ergänzungsheft zu Petermann’s Geographische Mittheilungen, No. xxxvi., p. 63, Gotha, 1874;

Erckert, Der Kaukasus und Seine Völker, p. 302, Leipsic, 1887;

idem, Die Sprachen, des Kaukasischen Stammes, Vienna, 1895;

Witsen, Noord en Oost Tartaryen, ii. 692, 808, Amsterdam;

Miller, Materialy dlya Izucheniya Yevreisko-Tatskavo Yazyka, St. Petersburg, 1892;

Merzbacher, Aus den Hochregionen des Kaukasus, Leipsic, 1901;

Anisimov, Kavkazskie Yevrei, Moscow, 1888;

Chorny, Sefer ha-Massa’ot, St. Petersburg, 1884;

Vakhouchte Tzarévitsch, Description Géographique de la Georgie, translated from the Georgian by Brosset, St. Petersburg, 1842;

Veidenbaum, Putevoditel po Kavkazu, Tiflis, 1888;

Russische Revue, xx. 42, xxi. 300;

Sbornik Materialov dlya Opisaniya Myestnostei i Plemion Kavkaza;

Van der Hoven, in Budushchnost, 1900, No. 52;

Harkavy, Ha-Yehudim u-Sefat ha-Slavim, pp. 105-109, and his reply to Steinschneider, Hebr. Bibl. ix. 15, 52, in Roman ob Alexandrye, 1892, p. 32, note;

idem, Soobshcheniya o Chazarakh, in Yevreiskaya Biblioteka, vii. 143-153;

idem, in Zapiski Vostochnavo Otdyeleniya Imperatorskavo Russkavo Archeologicheskavo Obshchestva, viii. 247;

idem, in Voskhod, 1896, ii. 35, 36;

Khronika Voskhoda, 1884, No. 44; 1886, No. 48; 1887, No. 20; 1895, No. 33;

Ha-Meliẓ, 1870, Nos. 4, 28-30, and 1895 passim;

Ha-Ẓefirah, 1880, x. 33-54; 1894, No. 94;

R. Andree, Zur Volkskunde der Juden, 1881;

Langlois Collection des Histoires Arméniennes: Faustus de Byzance, i. 274-275;

Hahn, Aus dem Kaukasus, Leipsic, 1891;

Uslar, Drevnyeishiya Izvyestiya o Kavkazye, Tiflis, 1881,

Yevreiskoe Obozryenie, 1884, v. 157;

D’Ohsson, Des Peuples du Caucase, . . . ou Voyage d’Abou-El-Cassim, Paris, 1828.

Spanish Military History Journal Interview with Kaveh Farrokh

The prestigious Spanish Military History Journal, HRM Ediciones of Historia Rei Militaris published its interview with Kaveh Farrokh on February 12, 2019: Entrevista a Kaveh Farrokh

The interview with Kaveh Farrokh was conducted by Spanish historian Dr. Javier Sánchez-Gracia (seated) during the book signing of his recent text “Imperios de las Arenas: Roma y Persia Frente a Frente” (Empires at the Sand: Rome and Persia Face to Face) during the “Feria del Libro de Zaragoza” book fair on April 23, 2017 in Zaragoza, Spain. Standing next to Dr. Sánchez-Gracia is his friend and colleague Dr. Manuel Ferrando, also an accomplished historian from the University of Zaragoza, Spain. Dr. Sánchez-Gracia is himself an accomplished specialist of Greco-Roman relations with the pre-Islamic Iranian empires of the Achaemenids, Parthians and Sassanians.

The full transcript of the interview (in English) is available below as the final version in Spanish had to be significantly edited (text and images) in order to accommodate HRM Ediciones‘ editorial requirements.


[1] Dear Kaveh, although you live in Canada, you come from an Iranian family, but your ancestry is also from the Caucasus. How do you get to live in Vancouver? How do you see the current situation of Iran?

I am born in Greece and as my father (Fereydoun Farrokh) was a career diplomat during the previous Pahlavi establishment.

Above at left is Kaveh’s late father in 1962, Fereydoun Farrokh (1926-2019), the Iranian chargé d’affaires in Greece meeting with Evangelos Averoff (at right) the Greek Foreign Minister (Source: this photo has been published by Dr. Evangelos Venetis in his book “Greeks in Modern Iran” in 2014). The Minister is entrusting a cheque on behalf of the Greek government to Fereydoun Farrokh to send to Iran to financially assist Iranian earthquake victims at the time. Kaveh was born in Greece in 1962, during his father’s diplomatic mission to Greece.

I pretty much grew up in Europe. My schooling was in American and International schools, and I still have fond memories of the Berlin American High School (BAHS) where I spent most of my high school years.

Hot spot of the Cold War – Berlin in the 1960s and 1970s. LEFT: Checkpoint Charlie in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War. Above is a major military standoff between US M-48 tanks (note US M-113 armored personnel carrier at left) and Soviet forces at Checkpoint Charlie which was along the Berlin Wall which separated East from West Berlin (Checkpoint Charlie was on the Western side).  RIGHT: Berlin American High School (B.A.H.S.) now known as the Wilma-Rudolph-Oberschule. B.A.H.S  was permanently closed in 1994 during the withdrawal of US forces from Berlin following the end of the Cold War.  Kaveh crossed the Berlin Wall from East to West Berlin on a daily basis in the 1970s just to get to school (B.A.H.S.).  

I only lived a few years in Iran, after my father’s final mission as ambassador to East Germany in 1977. Prior to this my father my father had had a number of other missions to various European countries, including West Germany.

Fereydoun Farrokh and Mahavash Sara Pirbastami (mother of Kaveh Farrokh) welcome the Chinese ambassador in a reception held at the Iranian embassy in Köln (Cologne), West Germany in circa 1966 or 1967.

This is when I spent the most time in Iran in 1977-1978 when the revolution broke out. My family and I immigrated to France in 1979 and I subsequently left for my university studies to England and the US. We then immigrated to Canada in February 1983 where beautiful Vancouver has been our home ever since.

Kaveh Farrokh’s grandfather, Senator Mehdi Farrokh (top row at right) during his tenure in Rezaieh (modern Urumieh) in Azarbaijan province in the 1930s. His wife, Ezzat Saltaneh Tabatabai-Diba (left) is of the long-standing Diba family of northwest Iran.  Ezzat Saltaneh was the daughter of Nasrollah (Haj Nasser Saltaneh) Tabatabai-Diba. Mehdi and Ezzat’s daughters in the middle row are Victoria (left) and Parvin-dokht (right) and at the front row stands their son Fereydoun Farrokh.

As per the current political situation in Iran, my perspective is more guided by my focus as a historian and researcher of ancient (pre-Islamic) Iran. As you may know the current establishment ruling in Tehran is pan-Islamist in its outlook and is in general less interested in ancient Iran. Let us look at Shirin Hunter’s recent analysis published in LobeLog (March 7, 2017):

 The current government’s…priorities… emphasize vague and unattainable Islamist goals …

 While true that the Rouhani administration is considered as more moderate than other factions of the current establishment, the pan-Islamist faction remains very entrenched in the system, with a particular bias against pre-Islamic Iran or Persia. Take for example this statement by Mr. Ali Larejani (who has served as the Chairman of the Iranian parliament), in a speech he gave to Tehran’s prestigious Sharif University, May 2003:

Sadly, much lies are told today of Iranians before Islam, the extent of their culture and civilization, and the burning of their libraries during the Muslim invasionBefore Islam Iranians were an illiterate, uncivilized and basically barbaric people who desired to remain as such.”

While too numerous to list here other examples of such sentiments include Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani in Iran composing anti-Persian Poetry (in the Persian language) or the academic Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam’s declaration that:

 “I would not give/exchange a single hair of an Arab … for hundreds of Cyrus’, Darius’, Xerxes’, Iran’s past [history]…and Persepolis!” 

Note that Zibakalam is considered as a reformer and a neo-liberal. Another example is Hassan Rahimpour Azqadi, a major theoretician, academic and member of Iran’s Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, stated in the Payam-e Nour University of Mashad on March 11, 2014 (just days before the ancient Nowruz Iranian new year) that:

The Aryans drank the sewage of cows as a sacred drink…now that you wish to be proud of being Aryan, go and be Aryan”.

As noted already, such sentiments are also shared by reformist faction of the Iranian establishment. Mir Hossein Moussavi, the reformist candidate who ran against president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the 2009 Iranian Presidential elections, had stated in 1982 that the pre-Islamic history of Iran before 1979 had been fabricated during the Pahlavi era and two years after that claimed that the use of ancient (pre-Islamic) Achaemenid architecture as inspiration for contemporary architecture was a “disaster”.

While little noticed in Europe or North America, a select few Western media outlets have been diligently reporting these Persophobic policies, or more specifically bias against ancient pre-Islamic Iran. Recent University of New England graduate Dr. Sheda Vasseghi has been writing diligently against this historical revisionism by the pan-Islamists. In one of her articles “Rewriting the History of Iran” in the World Tribune (September 15, 2009) Dr Vasseghi avers:

“…any degree of bias observed in foreign sources about ancient Persians is nothing compared to the negativity, falsehood, and insufficient information provided by the current Iranian establishment to Iranian children… The overall tone is negativity towards … the nation’s culture and history … ancient Persians are described as greedy, unjust, chaotic, and selfish… There is no mention of the ancient Iranian prophet, Zoroaster, who is credited with being the first monotheist… suggests that Cyrus’ motivation for conquest was to become wealthy. Nothing is mentioned of Cyrus’ famous bill of rights cylinder and his decree in freeing the Jewish captives from Babylonia while taking on the financial responsibility to rebuild their temple… [pan-Islamists] are … systematically destroying a nation’s understanding of its past

Just days later Dr. Vasseghi’s report was corroborated by the BBC Persian-language outlet which made an extensive report on September 22, 2009 entitled “The elimination of the history of pre-Islamic monarchs of Persia in Iran’s History books

. Anti Indo-European sentiments have also been officially expressed (most recently in September 2016 on Radio Farda TV) by certain (possibly politically-oriented?) academics in Iranian Studies venues. Readers however must be reminded that there are many Iranian Studies professors outside of Iran and also inside Iran who oppose the historical revisionism of the authorities. Nevertheless, the Vasseghi and BBC articles have accurately exposed the process of historical revisionism that is taking place by the pan-Islamist factions.

It is hoped that, that the current (and upcoming) political process will reverse the nearly four-decade policy of de-Iranization or de-Persianization. All countries and peoples deserve to have a balanced view of their past and legacy and in Iran’s case this involves appreciating her ancient Indo-European past alongside her more recent (1400 year) Islamic legacy. In addition the history of ancient Iran also belongs to that of ancient Europe. The common assumption is that Europe is mainly derived from a Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian tradition but in fact there is a strong Indo-European and Zoroastrian element that has influenced not just Europe per se, but also the same Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian elements.


[2] Our image of the ancient Persians comes from Greco-Latin authors, How would you describe those Persians, who were rivals of Alexander the Great or Trajan?

 Much of our image today of “the Other” is based on the selective interpretation of the Classical sources made by mainly English and French and other northwest European scholars, especially from the 19th century onwards. This is not to say that hostile references do not exist in the ancient sources – of course they did, given the hegemonic conflicts that occurred between the two realms. The ancient Persians themselves however did not necessarily view the Greco-Roman civilization strictly as rivals per se, especially if we refer to the Sassanian era. Let us look for example to Apharban, the Persian ambassador representing Sassanian king Narses (r. 293-302 CE) during negotiations with Galerius, a Roman general Galerius after his victory over Sassanian forces in 291-293 CE – Apharban declared this to his Roman hosts:

“It is clear to all mankind that the Roman and Persian empires are like two lights, and like (two) eyes, the brilliance of one should make the other more beautiful and not continuously rage for their mutual destruction.”

These sentiments continued well into the late Sassanian era, before the fall of pre-Islamic Persia to the Arabs in the 7th century CE. In his letter to Romano-Byzantine emperor Maurice, Sassanian king Khosrow II wrote the following:

“God effected that the whole world should be illumined from the very beginning by two eyes, namely by the most powerful kingdom of the Romans and by the most prudent scepter of the Persian State. For by these greatest powers the disobedient and bellicose tribes are winnowed and man’s course is continually regulated and guided”

Apharban and Khosrow II were simply stating the Persian perspective that Rome and Persia were seen as the two major civilizations of antiquity in the west, with India and China predominating in the orient. Neither Rome nor ancient (Achaemenid, Parthian, Sassanian) Persia were “racial” empires – instead they were multifaceted civilizations with complex interrelationships in the arts, architecture, technology, engineering, theology, governance, commerce and militaria. The ancient Iranians also considered themselves as the guardians of knowledge and learning. Let us take the case of the Neo-Platonic Greek scholars who were expelled from Athens in 529 CE by Emperor Justinian (482-565 CE). They were welcomed into Persia’s Gundeshapur by Khosrow I Anushirvan (531-579 CE) where they continued their research in the Mathematics, Astronomy and Medicine. Let us get a glimpse into the Sassanian philosophy of learning in the Middle-Persian (Pahlavi) text, the Karnamag:

“We have made inquiries about the rules of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire and the Indian states. We have never rejected anybody because of their different religion or origin…it is a fact that to have knowledge of the truth and of sciences and to study them is the highest thing… He who does not learn is not wise”.

As indicated by the Karnamag, the Sassanians evinced a similar interest in Indian philosophy, medicine and sciences.

A detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans. For more see Ken R. Vincent: Zoroaster-the First Universalist 

Notice that these citations of history are rarely mentioned in academia or the media. Instead much of (but not all as there are notable exceptions) Western scholarship in Classical Studies continues to promote a distinctly Eurocentric approach, especially in trying to present Greco-Roman and Persian civilizations as completely opposite, hostile, unrelated and even isolated from one another.

A medieval portrait of the sages of medicine: Galen (left), the Iranian Avicenna (center) and Hippocrates (right). (980 -1037). Avicenna (or Abu Ali Sina) was born in Afshana, near (Bukhara), the ancient capital of the Iranian Samanid dynasty. The Arab Scholar Al-Qitfi  has noted that “They (the Persians) made rapid progress in science, developing new methods in the treatment of disease along pharmacological lines so that their therapy was judged superior to that of the Greeks and Hindus” (as cited in Elgood, 1953, p.311, Legacy of Persia (edited by A.J. Arberry), Clarendon Press).

Western writers and Classicists often emphasize the antagonistic aspect of East-West relations, especially with respect to the wars of the Greeks and their Roman successors against pre-Islamic Persia. The main aim of this is to portray history as a endless series of wars between the “West” (meaning the Greco-Roman world) which is portrayed as democratic and civilized versus the undemocratic, irrational, barbaric and un-democratic “East” (i.e. ancient pre-Islamic Persia).

But in reality there are also positive praises of ancient Iran by Greek writers, such as Xenophon’s Cyropaedia in reference to his writings with respect to Cyrus the Great. Drijvers for example highlights the fact that Roman and Sassanian Persian emperors’ recognized each other as rulers of equal rank and respect who often sought to establish friendly relations and communications. Eurocentric historians however not only choose to ignore this side of history, but continue to cherry-pick information to present their own biased views. Recall the late Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) who proposed that there is a “Clash of Civilizations” due to the “fact” that the western world has been democratic over millennia in contrast to non-Western world, which is presented in very simplistic terms.

Is there really a “Clash of Civilizations”? One of the lecture slides from Kaveh Farrokh’s Fall 2014 course at the University of British Columbia Continuing Studies Division “The Silk Route: Origins and History [UP 829]”. The slide above – Left: Reconstruction of a European Renaissance Lute; Right: Moor and European play their respective Oud-Lutes in harmony (from the Cantingas of Alfonso el Sabio, 1200s CE) – note that Oud-Lutes were derived from the Iranian Barbat and Tanbur originating in pre-Islamic Persia.

Note also how ancient Iran and the modern-day Islamic world are (incorrectly) lumped into one entity. The late Edward Said (1935-2003) had argued against such paradigms (which he termed as “Orientalism”). Said noted that such Orientalism only serves to reinforce simplistic, Eurocentric and racist views of history and current events. Indeed Binsbergen has warned us of the fact that much (but not all of course) of Western scholarship continues to be challenged by:

“…the Eurocentric denial – as from the eighteenth century CE – of intercontinental contributions to Western civilization” and that “…Eurocentricism is the most important intellectual challenge of our time”.

The importance of Binsbergen’s observation cannot be overstated – especially in these times of strife, conflict and animosity. The path to healing in this age is through honest and balanced history writing. It is time that humanity as a whole realizes that our histories are shared, and when we share the whole truth, we finally arrive at an image of each other free of errors, hostility and bias.


[3] In Spain there are those who affirm that if it had not been for Leonidas and his Spartans, today we would speak Persian. What, in fact, was the purpose of Xerxes invading Greece?

I would humbly (as before) diverge from this interpretation. First, there already were Iranian speakers in Europe, with Iranian languages being of the same linguistic family as other Indo-European languages. The Scythians were already well-established in Eastern Europe, notably modern-day Ukraine and parts of Bulgaria and Romania with Scythian artifacts having been found in modern-day Germany.

Scythians of the ancient Ukraine. Scholars are virtually unanimous that the Scythians were an Iranian people related to the Medes and Persians of ancient Iran or Persia (Painting by Angus McBride).

Iranian peoples such as the Sarmatians, Alans and countless others continued to migrate into Europe after the fall of the Achaemenids during the reign of the Parthians and early Sassanians reaching as far as modern-day France.

Roman tombstone from Chester (housed at Grosvenor Museum, item #: 8394907246), UK depicting Sarmatian horseman attired like other kindred Iranian  peoples such as the Parthians and Sassanians  (Source: Carole Raddato, uploaded by Marcus Cyron in Public Domain).

 Saka Tigra-khauda (Old Persian: pointed-hat Saka/Scythians) as depicted in the ancient Achaemenid city-palace of Persepolis. It was northern Iranian peoples such as the Sakas (Scythians) and their successors, the Sarmatians and Alans, who were to be the cultural link between Iran and ancient Europe  (Picture used in Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

Iranian-speaking Alans for example arrived alongside the Goths into Spain (hence the legacy of Catalan = Goth-Alan). Alan contingents for example were dispatched to Britain by Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

A depiction of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d”Arthur. Note the windsock carried by the horseman (Farrokh, page 171, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا) – this item was bought from the wider Iranian realm (Persia, Sarmatians, etc.) into Europe by the Iranian-speaking Alans. The inset depicts a reconstruction of a 3rd century CE Partho-Sassanian banner by Peter Wilcox (1986).

The close ties of Iranian peoples with Europe was acknowledged until relatively recently as noted by Noah Webster who clearly stated:

“the original seat of the German and English nations was Persia” (p. ix), and “[t]he ancestors of the Germans and English migrated from Persia” (p. 4).

This was in reference to the common origins of Europeans and ancient Iranians. There are numerous such references too long to list here so let us look at another two examples. Professor Christopher I. Beckwith (Professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University) for example has noted that:

“… the early Germanic peoples, including the ancestors of the Franks, belonged to the Central Eurasian Culture complex which they had maintained since Proto-Indo-European times, just as the Alans and other Central Asian Iranians had done. This signifies in turn that ancient Germania was culturally a part of Central Eurasia and had been so ever since the Germanic migration there more than a millennium earlier (2009, pp. 80-81)

But it is not just Germanic peoples – we need to look at the Indo-European family with all its members: Europeans, Indians and Iranians. Beckwith further notes to us that:

“The dynamic, restless Proto-Indo-Europeans whose culture was born there [Central Asia] migrated across and “discovered” the Old World, mixing with the local peoples and founding the Classical civilizations of the Greeks and Romans, Iranians, Indians, and Chinese…Central Eurasians – not the Egyptians, Sumerians, and so on– are our ancestors. Central Eurasia is our homeland, the place where our civilization started” (2009, p.319).

Yet today many Europeans remain fixated with exploring Egypt, Sumeria, Babylon and even ancient Tibet as their possible origins, when in fact their Indo-European origins were acknowledged until very recent times.

Such references have been virtually deleted in modern history texts and academia, for many reasons, including political and economic factors. We are often unaware of such facts today, and one reason for this is how our minds are shaped by terminology such as “Middle East”, “Muslim world”, etc. to in order to view and interpret peoples, regions and events in certain ways, which are not necessarily accurate.

A Russian photograph of Ossetian women of the northern Caucasus working with textiles in the late 19th century CE. Ossetians are the descendants of the Iranian speaking Alans who migrated to Eastern Europe, notably former Yugoslavia, and modern-day Rumania and Hungary (where their legacy remains in the Jasz region).

Put simply, Iranians have been integral to the history and development of Europe; the Persian Empire was part of a larger civilizational complex known commonly L’Iran Exterior or Greater Iran.

The celebration of “Surva” in modern-day Bulgaria. Local lore traces this festival to the Iranian God Zurvan. This folklore system appears to be linked to the Bogomil movement. Interestingly, much of the Surva theology bears parallels with elements of Zurvanism and Zoroastrianism (Picture Source: Surva.org).

As per the notion that if the Achaemenids had prevailed, then all under their rule would speak Persian is inaccurate when we examine the nature of the empire itself.

The Persian Achaemenid Empire was in fact a multilingual, multicultural and multireligious state with local languages and traditions being actively encouraged. Darius’ inscription at Behistun is written not just in Old Persian but also in Babylonian, Elamite and Akkadian – and this is INSIDE modern-day Iran.

Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney). Like many of the founding fathers and those who wrote the US Constitution, President Jefferson regularly consulted the Cyropedia – an encyclopedia written by the ancient Greeks about Cyrus the Great. The two personal copies of Thomas Jefferson’s Cyropaedia are in the US Library of Congress in Washington DC. Thomas Jefferson’s initials “TJ” are seen clearly engraved at the bottom of each page.

There was no policy of forced conversions to Zoroastrianism or citizens being forced to abandon their cultures and customs to speak Persian. Let us see for example the observations of the late Professor Berthold Laufer who noted:

“The Iranians were the great mediators between the West and the East, conveying the heritage of Hellenistic ideas to central and eastern Asia and transmitting valuable plants and goods of China to the Mediterranean area. Their activity is of world-historical significance … ” (page185, Publications of the Field Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Series, Volume 15, No. 3, 1919).

Contrary to what we hear on the mainstream press and increasingly in select areas of academia, Iranians supported and mediated the Hellenic heritage. It is also interesting that there is European scholarship that acknowledges the link between the ancient Iranians and Europeans.

Much of what we have seen, especially after 1979 has been a more “modern” view which plays into “othering” the Iranians to lead to a somewhat simplistic and black-white view of history, one that paints the pictures of “Good” versus “Evil” and “Us” versus “Them”. This is neither scientific not historical and turns people away from the entire picture of what really happened in antiquity.

Now let us focus our attention to the invasion of Greece by Xerxes. Perhaps the best summary of events was provided in my lecture “The Other Side of 300” at The Pharos Canadian­Hellenic Cultural Society in Vancouver, Canada on February 25, 2008. To put it simply, the reasons for the Greco-Persian wars were as much economic as they were political. Broadly speaking there were five reasons summarized below:

1) The sack of Sardis by the mainland Greeks: On the eve of his invasion, Xerxes declared that he wanted to obtain vengeance for the massacre and burning of Sardis inside the Achaemenid Empire by the mainland Greeks during the reign of Darius the Great (Xerxes’ father). Notably the temple of Goddess Cybele had also been burnt by the Greeks, which was the reason Xerxes set fire to the temples of the Greeks as well as Athens during his invasion of 480 BCE. Xerxes was essentially attempting to settle the “unfinished business” of his father Darius, who had failed at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE and died shortly thereafter.

[1-2] Persian Rhythons – many of these were captured after the defeat of Mardonius at Plataea (479 BC) (Herodotus, 9.80)and [3] an Athenian rhyton (Museo di archeologia ligure, Genova) (Pictures 1-2 used in Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006; Picture 3 originally posted in Iran Chamber Society).

2) Fear of future Greek attacks: Xerxes and the Achaemenid government were greatly concerned that the Greeks would launch more destructive raids on the Achaemenid Empire as they had done already at Sardis.

3) The need to assert imperial (Achaemenid) authority: In Xerxes’ view the mainland Greeks had defied the authority of the king with their invasion of Asia Minor and especially their destruction of Sardis. Failure by the empire to take successful action against Greece would undermine the authority and prestige of the imperial throne and empire.

[1] Achaemenid Hall of 100 at Persepolis and with dimensions bearing 68,50 x 68,50 meters – 10 x 10 columns [2] Pericles’ Odeon with dimensions bearing 68,50 x 62,40 meters – 9 x 10 columns (Pictures 1-2 originally posted in Iran Chamber Society).

4) Invitation by anti-Athenian Greeks for Xerxes to invade Greece: The enemies of the Athenians from Thessaly as well as the Pisistratidae had sent messengers to the king urging him to invade Greece.

5) Expansion of Achaemenid economic trading zones into the Mediterranean: Darius had left a powerful legacy of private enterprise, manufacturing and international commerce, with an efficient taxation system (provincial and customs) with the major proceeds of these funds being fed back into the economy. A highly efficient irrigation system allowed for agriculture to thrive in dry areas. The empire had also completed a Royal Highway stretching 2,700 km, connecting Susa in southwest Persia with Sardis in Western Anatolia. This now facilitated economic, cultural, political and military links between the Iranian plateau and Anatolia. This allowed for the creation of history’s first true common market and free trade system. There was now also a common currency, the Daric which replaced the barter system for goods and services. There was now a rise of international commerce between regions that had never directly traded before, such as Greece and Babylon. The empire was now intent to expand Darius’ “Economic Miracle” which was now placed on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. This challenged Greek economic and shipping primacy in the Mediterranean. Note that Greeks were already established in the Mediterranean in places such as Calabria in southern Italy, Nikea (modern Nice in southern France) and Massilia (modern Marseilles, also in modern southern France). There were also many Greeks participating in the commercial benefits of the Achaemenid Empire’s economy whose ships were now expanding into the Mediterranean. Italian researchers for example have found evidence of a Persian trading colony in southern Italy dated to the times of Darius and Xerxes. Hence we can now assert that one of the facts that may have led to war was economic rivalry in the Mediterranean between Greece and Persia.

Map of the Achaemenid Empire drafted by Kaveh Farrokh on page 87 (2007) for the booShadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-:


[4] From a military perspective, What do you consider to be the greatest Persian success? And Persia’s greatest failure?

Most historians of ancient Iran would probably tell you that the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE in which the Roman armies of Marcus Lucinius Crassus were defeated by a smaller Parthian force was ancient Iran’s greatest victory or the victories of Sassanian king Shapur I in the early 3rd century CE over the armies of Gordian III, Philip the Arab and Valerian.

Emperor Valerian surrenders to Shapur I (241-272 CE) and Sassanian nobility at Edessa in 260 CE (Source: Kaveh Farrokh, 2005, Elite Sassanian Cavalry).

However the precursor to all of these victories is a little known Iranian commander from Central Asia known as Spitames who inflicted a decisive defeat on a Macedonian army at the Battle of Zarafshan River (known as the Battle of the Polytimetos River in Classical sources). Spitames’ victory was the result of the development of the doctrine of the all-cavalry force in which heavy armored lancers were supported by light cavalry (horse archers and javeliners). This doctrine had been developing in Achaemenid armies even as Alexander toppled the Achaemenid Empire. The concept of the armored cavalryman had continued to evolve from the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BCE and even as Alexander advanced into Persia, the military planning staff had implemented important reforms that would eventually lead to the rise of Persia’s later Parthian and Sassanian armored lancers. It was in the armies of Spitames where the reforms of Darius III’s staff finally found their fruition, leading to defeat of the Macedonian general, Pharnacus. The Battle of Zarafshan was the prelude to the later victories such as Carrhae, those of Shapur I, etc.

Parthian Horse archers engage the Roman legions of Marcus Lucinius Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Unlike the Achaemenid-Greek wars where Achaemenid arrows were unable to penetrate Hellenic shields and armor, Parthian archery was now able to penetrate the armor and shields of their Roman opponents (Picture Source: Antony Karasulas & Angus McBride).

As per the greatest failure, many but not all of course would cite the Battle of Qadissiya in 637 CE when Arabo-Muslim invaders defeated the Sassanian armies, which led the way to the eventual capture of Ctesiphon. In my opinion that was a catastrophe that may have been averted had it not been for the wars of Byzantium and Sassanian Persia in 604-628 CE. Even as Persia was victorious for much of that conflict, especially by capturing Syria, Palestine, Egypt and much of Anatolia from the Byzantines, these same victories laid the seeds of Persia’s destruction. Persia had overextended herself militarily and when Heraclius rebuilt the shattered Byzantine armies and struck his alliance with the Khazars, the fate of the empire was in jeopardy. The ensuing counterattack proved devastating to the Sassanians who were finally forced to sue for peace with Khosrow II deposed. According to Western sources the Byzantines lost around half a million of their top warriors in that conflict and it may be safely assumed that the Sassanians had lost just as many if not more during Heraclius’ counter-strikes. Both the Sassanians and Byzantines were badly shaken to the core and militarily weakened.

The Aftermath of the Byzantine Sassanian Wars: The Arabs strike. Tim Newark’s reconstruction of Arabo-Muslim invader and his Ethiopian slave confronting a Sassanian cavalryman at the Battle of Qadissiyah (637 AD).  Despite Rustam Farrokhzad’s (the Iranian commander) best efforts, the Arabo-Muslim forces emerged victorious after a four-day battle. Key factors in the Arab victory were (1) the weakened military state of Sassanian forces after the devastating wars with Byzantium (2) general demoralization among the troops and civilians and (3) a powerful sandstorm which blew sand into Sassanian forces  just as Farrokhzad was about to deliver a devastating blow. Nevertheless, Ctesiphon, the capital city of the Sassanian empire (40 kilometres from modern-day Baghdad, Iraq), put up a spirited defence against the Arabian invaders before being sacked and looted – up to 40,000 Iranian women were taken to Arabia to be sold as slaves. Byzantium also paid the price for its war with Sassanian Persia – with the exception of Constantinople and parts of Anatolia, the Arabs drove the Byzantines permanently out of the Near East and Egypt. For a full military account of these events consult pp. 268-271, Farrokh, –سایه‌های صحرا-Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей, 2007. (Picture source:  picture 11, Tim Newark, The Barbarians: Warriors & Wars of the Dark Ages, Blandford Press, 1985 & 1988).

The new Caliphate of the Arabs ruled by Omar realized how the long Sassanian-Byzantine war had fatally weakened both empires. Omar also realized that he needed to strike quickly before either empire had time to recover. The Byzantines lost much of their possessions in the Near East to the Arabs but managed to survive until their final overthrow by Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453. When the Arabs thrust into Sassanian Persia they were no longer facing the world-class armoured lancers that had challenged Rome for centuries but the battered remnants of a once mighty professional military force. The long Byzantine-Sassanian war in my opinion was a gross military error that not only cost the Sassanian Empire its existence but resulted in a fatal change in the history of the world. If the Byzantines and the Sassanians had made peace, the Arab-Muslims would have had great difficulty in expanding their Caliphate across North Africa and then into Spain with brief incursions into southern France. The Byzantine-Sassanian war indeed changed the face of history much as did the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.


 [5] We are well acquainted with Persia’s relationship with the West, but do we know anything about their relationship with Eastern peoples?

When we say Persia, we need to look at the wider context of Iranian peoples and L’Iran exterier. In this context we are looking at Iranian tribal confederations such as the Scythians, Alan-Sarmatians and other North Iranian peoples who dominated much of Eastern Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia. These tribal confederations also facilitated links between their Iranian kinsmen in Persia and China and enabled links between Persia, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. When the first proto-Iranian peoples migrated eastwards they reached as Far East as the Tien Shan Mountains. From the 2nd millennium BCE they had established trade across the Pamir Mountains between China and the Yarkand-Khotan and Badakhshan regions. This began a long and continuous process of intercultural influence between the Iranian peoples-Persia and the Chinese civilization that is also in a sense, the birth of the Silk Route that was to become the “cultural internet” of its day, linking east and west. In between the two hemispheres were located the Iranian peoples and Persia. As noted by the late Professor Berthold Laufer:

“We now know that Iranian peoples once covered an immense territory, extending all over Chinese Turkestan, migrating into China, coming in contact with the Chinese, and exerting a profound influence on nations of other stock, notably Turks and Chinese. The Iranians were the great mediators between the West and the East, conveying the heritage of Hellenistic ideas to central and eastern Asia and transmitting valuable plants and goods of China to the Mediterranean area. Their activity is of world-historical significance, but without the records of the Chinese we should be unable to grasp the situation thoroughly”.

Mummies bearing Caucasoid features uncovered in modern northwest China; these were either Iranic-speaking or fellow Indo-European Tocharian (proto-Celtic?). Archaeologists have found burials with similar Caucasoid peoples in ancient Eastern Europe. Much of the colors and clothing of the above mummies bear striking resemblance to the ancient dress of pre-Islamic Persia/Iran and modern-day Iranian speaking tribal and nomadic peoples seen among Kurds, Lurs, Persians, etc.  (Source: Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division – this was also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006, the annual Tirgan event at Toronto (June, 2013) and at Yerevan State University’s Iranian Studies Department (November, 2013) – Diagram is Copyright of University of British Columbia and Kaveh Farrokh).

Perhaps one of the most interesting recent finds (report in China News in August 2014) pertains to archaeologists in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region having discovered major Zoroastrian tombs, dated to over 2,500 years ago corresponding to the chronology of the (first) Persian (Achaemenid) empire. As noted by Chinese archaeologists in the China News outlet:

“This is a typical wooden brazier found in the tombs. Zoroastrians would bury a burning brazier with the dead to show their worship of fire. The culture is unique to Zoroastrianism.”

Archaeologists in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region have discovered major Zoroastrian tombs, dated to over 2,500 years ago. (Caption and Photo Source: Chinanews.com). As noted in the China News report: “This is a typical wooden brazier found in the tombs. Zoroastrians would bury a burning brazier with the dead to show their worship of fire. The culture is unique to Zoroastrianism…This polished stoneware found in the tombs is an eyebrow pencil used by ordinary ladies. It does not just show the sophistication of craftsmanship here over 2,500 years ago, but also demonstrates the ancestors’ pursuit of beauty, creativity and better life, not just survival. It shows this place used to be highly civilized”.

Iranian peoples such as the Kushans and Parthians played a major role in the spread of Buddhism into mainland China. Too numerous to cite here are artistic legacies of that influence such as the fresco along the Tarim Basin, China depicting a Central Asian Buddhist monk instructing a Chinese monk on philosophy (c. 9th-10th Century). Influences from Sassanian Persia in China continued after the Arab conquests.

Statue of King Kanishka I (c. AD 127–163) of the Kushan Empire (c. 30-375 CE)  (housed in the Mathura Government Museum, India; Source: Public Domain). The large broadsword was a powerful cultural symbol in the martial cultures of the Iranian kingdoms as exemplified by the “broadsword” of Khosrow II seen at the top panel inside the Iwan at Taghe Bostan near Kermanshah in Western Iran.

Cosmopolitan Chinese cities such as Chang’An, Lo-Yang and Tun-Huang were soon settled with vibrant Iranian immigrants as they also did in Turkish ruled Kashgar and Khotan in Central Asia. Chinese archives such as the T’ang Shu records of the court of Ming Huang or example, provide some insight into these new Iranian arrivals into China:

“Inside the (Ming Huang) palace, Iranian music is held in high esteem, the tables of persons of noble rank are always served with Persian food, and the women compete with one another in wearing Persian costumes…”

There are also a number of Chinese descriptions of Sassanians who had taken sojourn in China, such as the women of the Po-sse (Persians) often being described as having fair skin, blue or green eyes with dark or auburn hair. The Iranians also introduced the Persian Gardens dating to Cyrus the Great to China, with one exceptional example being the 17th century park of Ch’ing Emperor K’ang Shi having been inspired by the ancient Persian model.

The first Iranians also arrived as far away as Japan in the 8th century CE.  The Japanese Emperor Shomu appointed Tajihi no Hironari as ambassador to T’ang China 733 CE. This was followed by the return of vice-ambassador Nakatomi no Nashiro to Japan three years later, with a large Tang delegation accompanied by a Persian known as “Li Mi-I”. Excluding the possible exception of northern Japan’s indigenous Ainu population, this is the first official record of a Caucasian visiting Japan. Most likely he was a descendant of one of the Iranian or post-Sassanian refugees to have escaped the Arab occupation of Persia and Central Asia.

An enduring Sassanian legacy in Japan: the Biwa and its ancient Iranian ancestor, the Barbat (Source: Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

Records of Japanese persons of Persian descent continue to be cited by Japanese researchers. Akirhiro Watanabe of the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties for example, reports of a man who taught mathematics in Japan due to Persia’s renowned expertise in the subject – as noted by Watanabe to the Japan Times (October 2016):

“Although earlier studies have suggested there were exchanges with Persia as early as the 7th century, this is the first time a person as far away as Persia was known to have worked in Japan… This suggests Nara was a cosmopolitan city where foreigners were treated equally”.

Sassanian and Soghdian merchants were actively trading with China, a process that led to Iranian links with ancient Korea and Japan (Source: Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia).

There are also routes of cultural influence through Persian shipping extending as far away as Southeast Asia. Parthian merchants were present in modern-day Tun-Sun on the Malay Peninsula with Iranian traders recorded as far away as Tonking as early as the 3rd century CE. By the time of Khosrow I, Persian shipping technology had advanced considerably with reports of these vessels being capable of transporting up to 700 passengers and crew in addition to “a thousand metric tons of cargo“. One of the first Sassanian shipping lines ran from the southern Chinese harbors to Vietnam which was to became a major node of cultural communication in the Far East and Sassanian Persia. Sassanian coins dated to the 5th century CE for example have been discovered in Yarang, Thailand.

Iranian settlers also reached Cambodia where some Sassanian works were translated into Cambodian (known to the local Champa dynasty 192-1471 CE as “The Book of Anoushirwan” – note that Anoushirwan was the nickname of Sassanian King Khosrow I). The modern-day “Orang Bani” of southern Vietnam claim descent from the “Noursavan“, with direct references to Khosrow I also existing in ancient Malaysia (where he is referred to as “Raja Nushirwan Adil” – Malay: King Anoushirwan the Just) in the Malay literary work known as “Sejara Melayu”.

The Shalimar Bagh (Garden) of Srinagar, Kashmir constructed in the Mughal-era Persian architectural style featuring fountains, canals, pools, patterned flower works, grasses, trees, etc. (Source:Tripadikberadik).

Sassanian shipping continued to facilitate the spread of Persian culture as far as the coastal areas of southern India, China, modern Vietnam and the Pacific. Persian ships for example are reported in Sri Lanka as early as the 6th Century CE with these links continuing after the fall of Sassanian Persia to the Arabs.  In fact by the 7th century CE Persian shipping had reached into the southern Pacific as attested to by records of Persian merchant ships departing from Malay towards Ceylon in 727 CE. Chinese sources record of the ships of the Po-sse (Persians) sailing from Canton in 671 CE. A large Po-sse community is also recorded in Hainan, China as late as 748 CE.


[6] The Great King was the “King of Kings” (Shahan-Shah). What was the government and administration in ancient Persia? Moreover, it seems that since the third century, at the administrative level, Persia is more like Rome.

 This comes back to how deeply the two civilizations (Greco-Roman and Iranian) impacted one another. The Romans themselves had inherited many of ancient Iran’s traditions, one example being the postal system, but it is in their cosmopolitan nature where the two empires shared a common image. Both Rome and Persia were civilizations that had a diverse range of peoples, languages and religions under their rule. The Sassanian Empire, like that of Rome, was multifaceted with the characteristic of having had distinct (social) classes organized into a hierarchical order. It seems that there were four distinct social classes: (1) the priests or Magi known as the “Asronan” (2) the professional warrior class which was recruited from the higher nobility of “Wuzurgan” (grandees) and especially the “Azadan” (lit. freemen) but following the reforms of the 6th century CE, there was also a new class of cavalry of the “Dehkans” or lesser nobility (3) the class of commoners or the “Wastaryoshan” and (4) the lowest class of “Hutukhshan” (artisans). At the apogee of supreme authority was the Shahanshah (king of kings) much like the Emperor of Rome. The king’s entourage was composed of the Wuzurgan (grandees) who were composed of lesser rulers/kings, princes from the house of Sassan, the Magi or priests and the great landlords.

court of Khosrow II and his queen Shirin (Source: Farrokh, Plate F, p.62, -اسواران ساسانی- Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005); note the monarch who sits with his ceremonial broadsword. The Sarmatians shared the culture and martial traditions of their Iranian kin, the Parthians and the Sassanians.

While both the Romans and the Sassanians shared parallels in their administration, the two empires also shared certain parallels in religious development. As you know the Roman Emperor Constantine did much to promote Christianity as a single religion for the Roman Empire. Constantine and his son Crispus sat in on the Council of Nicea in 325 CE to provide the ecumenical foundations for a single form of Christianity much as during the Sassanian era, notably from the time of the Grand Magus Kartir, Zoroastriansim was to become increasingly an orthodox faith for the Sassanian Empire. Note that a similar process had occurred in another earlier Iranian empire: the Kushans. Kanishka the Great, Kushan’s greatest emperor, presided over the 4th Buddha Council to meet in the Punjab (or Kashmir?) to harmonize the doctrines of 18 opposed (Buddhist) sects, thereby promoting the Kandahara School of Buddhism. Religion was now one of the institutional pillars for administrating a vast empire, in this case with respect to the empires of Rome, Persia and the Kushans.


[7] If the Sassanid Empire managed to resist the invasion of Heraclius, How did they fall quickly before the Arabs?

This has been discussed in detail in my 2017 textbook on the Sassanian Army, and here we can give you a concise summary. Three of the reasons for the Sassanian collapse are listed below:

Military factors. This part of the interview connects to what we discussed in response to Question 4. The devastating Sassanian war with the Roman-Byzantines badly damaged the efficiency and morale of the Sassanian Spah (army). As noted previously the huge losses in professional warriors meant that the Arabs no longer had to fear facing Persia’s top fighters. Persia needed a generation to recover its losses and to train replacements for its missing ranks of top-level professional warriors. The caliphate led by their caliph Omar, had no intentions of giving the Persians or Romans any time to recover – less than 10 years after the ceasefire between Persia and Rome, the Arabs struck both empires. Before the invasion, morale and discipline had also plummeted in the Sassanian army which also affected vigorous training. Put simply, the Arabs had great timing in their history: they struck at the right place and at the right time against Persia and Rome. And the results of this, as we noted before, were devastating with the road to Europe opened allowing the Arabs to invade Spain.

Frictions in the upper classes. The upper stratum of Sassanian society had rifts, especially between those of Parthian descent and the house of Sassan. Parvaneh Pourshariati has outlined in detail how these dynamics helped weaken the ability of the Sassanian state to resist and endure against the Arab invasion. Loyalty was also an issue when the Arabs invaded, as numbers of the top nobility and military personnel joined the Arabs during the invasion. Sassanian warriors who joined the Arabs were often paid twice (or more) the salary than regular Arab troops!

Societal: the Sassanian class system was rigid, so upward mobility was very difficult. There was also the problem of the extremely wealthy upper classes, especially landlords, who along with the Royal House, were hoarding a larger and larger share of the nation’s wealth at the expense of the ordinary people. In short, there was a wide gap between rich and poor. The reformer-prophet Mazdak had attempted to address these societal imbalances at the time of king Kavad (reign: 488-496, 498-541 CE) but by the time of his son Khosrow I (reign: 531-579 CE), Mazdak was executed and his followers suppressed. Despite economic advancement and reforms by Khosrow I, the challenges facing Sassanian society had not been completely addressed by the time the Arabs were preparing to invade the Sassanian Empire.

Re-enactment of Battle of Qadissiyah (Source: Umar Ibn Khattab Series MBC1 & Qatar TV).

However Persia did not fall as quickly as many believe. While true that Persia was conquered, fierce resistance against the Arabs continued well into the 9th century CE. There were many Iranian resistance fighters such as Sindbad, Muqanna, Ustasis, etc. There are several women resistance fighters who fought against the Arabs, one of these being Azadeh Dailam (the free of one Dailam) hailing of a Parthian clan. She held the Arabs at bay in northern Persia. Remarkable is also the exploits of Babak Khorramdin who with his wife, Banu, who led a nearly three-decade resistance movement, having ejected the Caliphate from northwest Persia. This led to the arrival of thousands of anti-Caliphate fighters from across Persia to join Babak’s banner. Babak also made a joint declaration with Maziar (a prince from the Parthian Karen clan) and Afshin (an Iranian general) stating that they intended to: “…take back the government from the Arabs and give it back to the Kasraviyan [Sassanians]”.

The Castle of Babak Khorramdin in Iran’s Azarbaijan province which defied the armies of the Caliphate for two decades (Source: Ancient Origins).

Babak and Banu are Persia’s equivalents to Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Just as Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded in breaking the hold of the Caliphate in Spain, so too did Babak and Banu endeavour to eject the Caliphate from all of Persia. Several armies of the Caliphate were wiped out by Babak’s fighters in 813-833 CE, however the Byzantine Empire failed to capitalize on these successes to help the Iranians, and with the end (some would say betrayal) of his resistance movement in 837 CE, Persia’s last chance to eject the Caliphate ended.

Iranian painting of 2009 depicting the betrayal and capture of Babak by the caliphate (Source: Ancient Origins).

Nevertheless, the Arabs failed to impose themselves in northern Persia. Ibn Isfandyar’s “History of Tabaristan” provides a number of detailed observations of the local armies in northern Persia, which appear to have retained Sassanian military tactics, equipment and titles. One of the local commanders of northern Persia, Sherwin Ispadbodh, reputedly refused to allow any slain Muslim Arabs to be buried in northern Persia. Arab sources can be cited describing Northern Persia as one of the implacable enemies of the Caliphate. This was at a time when Spain had fallen to the Arabs in Europe. More examples of resistance in the interior of Iran can be cited, but suffice it to say that Iran, like Spain, refused to become Arabicized in culture and language, a fate that befell ancient peoples such as those of Egypt, Syria, Phoenicia and many others. It was Spain and Iran that succeeded in retaining their distinct culture and Indo-European languages. Neither Spain nor Iran are Arab countries today.


[8] After the Arab conquest, were there remains of Persian culture?

Here is a case that defines the endurance of Persia: she gets conquered but her culture not only endures but conquers that of the invaders: the Arabs of the Caliphates followed by the Seljuk Turks and the Mongols. Here is where a quote by   the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) in his Muqaddimah (translated by F. Rosenthal (III, pp. 311-15, 271-4 [Arabic]; R.N. Frye (p.91) which has acknowledged the role of the Iranians in the promotion of scholarship in the post-Sassanian era:

“…It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs…thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent…they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar…great jurists were Persians… only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet becomes apparent, ‘If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persians would attain it”…The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…as was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture.”

A statue of Arabo-Islamic historian, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) in Tunisia. Ibn Khaldun emphasized the crucial role of the Iranians in promoting learning, sciences, arts, architecture, and medicine in Islamic civilization.  It was pan-Arabists such as Sami Shawkat who insisted that history books such as those by Ibn Khaldun be destroyed or re-written to remove all references of Iranian contributions to Islamic civilization. The former Baathist regime in Iraq promoted such policies and even worked alongside numerous lobbies to promote historical revisionism at the international level.

As per the Turks, let us refer to Turkish Professor Ilber Ortayli of Galatasaray University (Istanbul, Turkey) in his interview with the BBC-Persian news outlet (October 2012):

“The influence of Iran upon the Turks is like the influence of ancient Greece upon the entirety of Europe … We [the Turks] adopted much of our bureaucratic and governance methods from the Iranians during the Ottoman dynasty. We have been influenced by Iranian civilization since ancient pre-Islamic times. The only difference between us [the Turks] and them [the Iranians] is in our language groups…Persian is an Aryan language … Our worship of nature and creed of Shamanism has been heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism. And in the days of Islam, all of our learned men/teachers who taught us were all Iranians. Even our alphabet is derived from the Iranians…because of our history with the Ottomans we continue to share a special bond with the Iranians”.

History Professor Ilber Ortayli of Galatasaray University in Istanbul Turkey.

The Turks and Iranians hence share what is known in Iranian Studies as “Persianate Civilization”, a culture pervading among the Iranian-speaking Kurds, the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Central Asia. As this pertains to a shared general culture that transcends ethnicity, language and religion, thus this is not the same as “Muslim Civilization”. Georgia and Armenia for example are predominantly Christian nations yet both have strong traces of Persianate influence. Large but as yet unspecified numbers of Kurds do not profess Islam either, these often following ancient Iranian cults (e.g. the Yaresan, Yazidi, Ahl-e-Hak, etc.).

So we can end this part of discussion by saying this: while Iran did fall under the boot of conquerors such as the Arabian Caliphate, the Seljuk Turks and Mongols, the nation retained its Indo-European character and was neither Arabized nor Turkified. Again as noted in my response to question 7, the closest historical parallel in Europe is that of Spain which also fell under the to the Arabian Caliphates, but she, like Persia, succeeded in retaining her (Indo-)European language and culture.


[9] If you had to choose a moment from the History of Persia (pre-Islamic), what would it be?

Cyrus the Great’s edict declaring the human rights of diverse peoples and religions. Perhaps this is best expressed in my 2013 article on this topic published in the special edition of the Fezana (Publication of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America) Journal on Cyrus the Great and the Cyrus Cylinder in 2013. This edition featured articles written by a variety of scholars such as Jamsheed Choksy, Jacob Wright, Jenny Rose, Lisbeth Fried, Marc Gopin and Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi.The entire journal’s articles have also been translated into Spanish. Greek, Babylonian and biblical sources agree on Cyrus’ benevolent statesmanship but given the vastness of the subject we can cite the example of his rule as laid out in the declarations of the Cyrus Cylinder: (a) the Babylonian god Marduk is to be respected, a clear signal that Cyrus had not arrived in the city of Babylon on October 29, 549 BCE as a conqueror to impose Iranian culture, theology, and language (b) ordering a slum-clearance program, clearly demonstrating Cyrus’ concern for the welfare of all citizens irrespective of wealth, status, ethnic origin, religion, etc. (c) statues of gods of all religions were to be restored in original locales in accordance with the wishes of the people, a clear reference to freedom of worship, much like that enshrined in the Constitutional declarations of the Founding Fathers of the United States and (d) the right of all citizens to again engage in their respective New Year festivals, thereby affirming the rights of all citizens to freely and proudly celebrate their respective cultures.

The Cyrus Cylinder (The British Museum)

This is also the first time in history that a world power, Achaemenid Persia (550-333 BCE), had guaranteed the welfare of the Jews by protecting their culture, customs and religion. Liberated by Cyrus, perhaps up to 40,000 Jews now returned to Jerusalem from their Babylonian captivity who were even given funds from the Persian treasury to rebuild their temple. This policy is seen later with Darius the Great in 519-518 BCE who continued his support for the rebuilding of the Jewish temple at Jerusalem. An indication of the importance of Jews in the Achaemenid Empire is perhaps provided by the roles of Ezra, Daniel and Mordechai as described in the Bible. Thus to me, Persia’s finest hour is traced to Cyrus himself, as his real mark in history was not in military conquest, but in the way he chose to govern his newly formed empire.


  [10] Your 2008 book Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War has become a benchmark for studying Persia from a more objective view – and was celebrated by Richard Frye – However there are still many prejudices about ancient Persia. Do you think that the fall of the Shah helped to increase that image of Iran as an enemy of the West?

The late Professor Richard Nelson Frye (1920-2014) was a mentor and guide to me in many ways and in a sense, my second book (Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War) has been dedicated to his lifelong work in resurrecting a part of human civilization and history that has been marginalized for far too long.

Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War – [A] Persian translation by Taghe Bostan Publishers with the English to Persian translation having been done by Pedram Khazai; [B] Persian translation by Qoqnoos Publishers with the English to Persian translation having been done by Shahrbanu Saremi; [C] the Farrokh text  translated  into Russian (consult the Russian EXMO Publishers website); [D] The original publication by Osprey Publishing. As noted by the Iranshenasi academic journal, Professor Frye of Harvard University wrote the foreword of Farrokh’s text stating that “…Dr. Kaveh Farrokh has given us the Persian side of the picture as opposed to the Greek and Roman viewpoint …it is refreshing to see the other perspective, and Dr. Farrokh sheds light on many Persian institutions in this history…” (Mafie, 2010, pp.2).

In many ways you are correct as since the fall of the Shah in 1979, there had been an endless barrage of negative reports regarding Iran. But is this really only the result of the revolution? In reality Iran was already the target of negative reporting even before the fall of the Shah. While I do wish to go off topic, the issues with Iran are mainly based on geopolitical and especially petroleum issues, no matter what government is ruling in Iran (the Pahlavi Shahs or the current Mullah theocracy).

I recall growing up in Europe in the 1970s and seeing the almost daily barrage of anti-Iran reports in television documentaries and news reports. Some reports that come to mind are those of the American CBS station’s 60 Minutes or the Welt Spiegel from West Germany in the 1970s which always seemed to amplify Iran’s problems and faults but seemed to turn a blind eye to the issues of other neighbouring countries. For example there were constant reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights groups regarding Iran, yet far less mention was made when it came to any of Iran’s neighbours or the wider Middle East region. Even to this day reporting is often absent on these issues in the Arab world: the lack of elections in many Arab countries, women’s rights, human rights violations, etc. Take the case of Yemen for example: when Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser invaded the country, there was hardly any reaction from the Western press or political outlets. And today, Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, is again being crushed, this time by the mighty military machine of the Saudis, an epic human disaster with looming famine and disease. Yet there is very little criticism of Riyadh – to the contrary, they are even armed with the latest Western weaponry. Iran’s Mullah theocracy is far from innocent of course and while much of the criticism against this regime would be valid, why the silence then when it comes to Iran’s neighbors whose regimes are not necessarily better?

I still recall the outcry when the late Shah celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy. It was complained that this was an extravagance when much of the country struggled with poverty. However hardly any mention was made on the fact that the vast proportion of the funds were actually invested not on the celebrations themselves but on infrastructure projects such as highways, lodges, hotels, etc. Contrast this with the (far greater) extravagances of the wealthy sheiks neighboring Iran, a fact that continues to this day, yet there are hardly any Western reports of the vast gap between rich and poor in the Arab world.

It seems that Iran has become, as the French would say a favorite “bête noire”, even if the facts do not fit the narrative. On this note, allow me to share a personal experience I had while being interviewed by a radio station in the US. I was initially invited to speak regarding my third book Iran at War: 1500-1988 (published in 2011) but the radio host apparently had another intention: his paradigm was that Iran has been an enemy of the West since the dawn of history. It is clear that he had not read the textbook, especially the section on the Safavids that details how the Europeans and Persia were allies against the Ottoman Empire, the seat of the Caliphate at the time. I described to the radio host many of the items mentioned in our present interview (the links between civilizations, Iran’s Indo-European heritage) and especially the fact Persia was viewed very positively in the West including the founding fathers of the United States – this radically changed in the 20th century. To my surprise the radio host became very irate and angry, raising his voice saying “Iran’s nuclear program proves that they want to annihilate the West”. What was very interesting is that he was attempting to lump all of ancient Persia, the people of Iran and the current Mullah theocracy into a single monolithic. The nuclear agreement was still being negotiated at the time but far more interesting was his emotional reaction. In a sense he had to react with hostility and yelling on the radio as the information I was providing was contradicting his own belief system. Second, the radio audience was now hearing a series of facts that they had not heard before. They were learning that Iran or ancient Persia is not the “enemy” they have been taught it to be. They also learned that the regime of a country and the people and history of a country are not always one and the same. Truth can be dangerous to those who wish to suppress it.

Iranians in Tehran holding a candle vigil for the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks – Iranians were the only people in the so-called “Middle East” who held marches and vigils in solidarity with the Americans (see “The Other Iran” for more information …). However, news and images of these events have been ignored by mainstream Western outlets. The majority of the hijackers in 911 were Saudi Arabian and UAE citizens. While Iranian citizens are overwhelmingly friendly towards Western nations, citizens of Western “allies” such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are often not favorable to the Western world. Much like the pro-Saddam Hussein propaganda of the 1980s, Western outlets downplay “inconvenient facts” such as the above image. 

There is another factor deserving mention. For decades, from the end of the First World War, there has been a steady and growing effort among certain newly established states following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, to “write out” the history and legacy of Iran in accordance with pan-Arabist views. Throughout the 20th century all the way up to today, irrespective of who has been ruling in Iran, Western governments in general have been notably silent with respect to Arab governments’ effort to fund academic programs that essentially rewrite history. Numbers of Western scholars have often protested this, but as always, geopolitics and petroleum have the last word.

Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa (at left) and Sir Charles Belgrave (right) who was England’s Government Advisor to Bahrain. It was Belgrave who first pioneered the concept of changing the name of the Persian Gulf. The motives for such revisionist schemes are not clear, but it is possible that Belgrave was calculating that such actions would create frictions between the Iranians and the Arabs.

We saw how US officials of the current Trump administration danced with Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist leaders in May 2017, even as Trump in the 2016 election campaign had repeatedly accused Saudi Arabian complicity in much of the extremist (Wahhabist-Salfist) Sunni mayhem and terrorism. This Western tradition of courting and promoting un-elected dictators is of course nothing new.

King Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al Saud (reigned 1932-1953) meeting with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) (at right) aboard the US warship, USS Quincy, after the Yalta Conference (Feb. 4-11, 1945) (Source: Public Domain). The interpreter is Colonel Bill Eddy with Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy located to the left. Ibn Saud is on record for his racist statement “…we hate the Persians…”. Western statesmen and business lobbyists to the present day continue to ignore these types of attitudes among non-European leaders in favor of commercial and geopolitical interests.

But perhaps more dangerous in my perspective is the impact of these politics, most recently the Trump-Saudi embrace, and its potential impact on academic discourse and the invention of terminologies. Many of these newly founded (petroleum-economy) nations continue to have their historical revisionism actively promoted, especially with respect to Persephobia and erasing the legacy of Persia out of the history books. My concerns are perhaps best summarized by Salameh (2011) who astutely notes:

“Arab colonialist view of a cohesive uniform ‘Arab world,’ denuded of its pre-Arab heritage, seeps into America’s official, academic, and popular Middle Eastern discourse.  Never mind that a good third of Middle Easterners are not Arab; never mind that they still use languages and partake of collective memories distinct from those of Arabs….  This is the monolithic Middle East that is being legitimized and intellectualized at America’s leading universities today; a Middle East where the millenarian ‘Persian Gulf’ is re-christened ‘Arabian,’ where a rich tapestry of culture is deemed a uniform ‘Arab world,’ and where ancient pre-Arab peoples who so much as mutter an idiom resembling ‘Arabic’ are summarily anointed ‘Arabs.” [Salameh, F.  (2011, March 23).  “Arabian Gulf,” and other fairytales. Gatestone Institute International Policy Council].

[11] I imagine that you have more publications pending on the subject, can you advance us on what topics they will try?

Affirmative, as you may imagine researchers in our domain tend to be kept busy. I plan more articles for the Persian Heritage journal and European venues, especially the ties between Europe and Greater Iran. I am also very pleased with the  successful completion of the Dissertation in 2017 of Dr. Sheda Vasseghi at the University of New England where I acted as one of the academic advisors:

In the domain of military history, my 2017 comprehensive textbook on the Sassanian army with Pen & Sword Publishers in England was published after several production delays. As the most comprehensive textbook on the subject to date, this will provide the most detailed examination of the Sassanian army (Spah) with respect to logistics (and medical support), siege warfare and equipment, archery and close-quarter combat weapons, the Savaran cavalry (especially elite contingents), auxiliary forces (notably infantry, the elephant corps, javeliners, slingers, light cavalry, Sassanian military architecture, military operations along the Western (Romano-Byzantine) frontiers, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Persian regions, weaknesses of the Spah (army), downfall of the Spah and subsequent anti-Caliphate resistance with the final chapter discussing the legacy of the Spah upon the Romano-Western world. This book was reviewed in 2018 by the Military History Journal. Last year in 2018, two more books on Sassanian military history were also published in collaboration with Gholamreza Karamian, Dr. Katarzyna Maksymiuk (Institute of History and International Relations, Faculty of Humanities, Siedlce University of Natural Sciences and Humanities, Poland) and of course yourself, Dr. Javier Sánchez-Gracia.

I have now begun the process of writing a comprehensive book on the Parthian military and this will be a Herculean task given the paucity of sources on this subject, however, much of this has changed, thanks in large part to the hard work of Eastern European scholars in Poland and Russia especially as well as the archaeological expeditions of my friend and colleague Dr. Reza Karamian. Karamian and I published a paper recently on two of his recent archaeological finds in Iran as well as a cursory examination of Parthian daggers and swords housed in the Iran Bastan Museum in Tehran:

Since that publication last year, many examples of new finds have been uncovered by Karamian’s team and colleagues, notably new finds of Parthian daggers, swords, armor, arrowheads and belt buckles at Vestemin in northern Persia. We published this in 2018:

Karamian and I have published other articles as well on Parthian and Sassanian militaria. The previous year also resulted in my publishing of articles on Kurdish ties to Iranian mythology as well as my article in the University of Messina’s AGON journal discussing ties between ancient Persia and Greco-Roman civilization:

Last year you and I published a very well-received article in the Persian Heritage journal entitled “The “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm and the portrayal of the “Other”:

You and I plan to write a series of articles and books on topics of Parthian and Sassanian interest, with one of our recent projects having been the Sassanian invasion of 359 CE:

This year our book on Trajan’s campaign against the Parthian Empire was just published by HRM Ediciones:

Another article of interest was the one on the armies of the Mongols printed in a major British military history journal:

I am also working to co-author a series of new articles on the military history of Iran with Dr. Manouchehr M. Khorasani, a top specialist in the arms, armour and military lexicon of Iran. Below is an article we published in late 2018:

Meanwhile I have presented the following papers in the 2017 and 2018 ASMEA Conferences in held in Washington, DC:

I have also published a series of articles on on more recent eras (e.g.history of the Russian air force’s operations against Iran). This year, an article by you and I on the Anglo-Soviet invasion of 1941 will appear in the Historia de Guerra journal.

Cover pages of Iran at War (1500-1988) (Left) and the 2018 translation “ایران در جنگ” by Maryam Saremi of Qoqnoos publishers (Right). Iran at War is Farrokh’s third textbook on the military history of Iran. The total number of translations of Farrokh’s first three books are now seven. To date (Spring of 2019), Farrokh has published and co-authored eight textbooks on the Military History of Iran (two in 2018 with another in early 2019).

However given the volume of publications in general, interested readers who wish to see all my publications can consult my academia.edu profile for further information: Kaveh Farrokh-Academia.edu

[12] What is the status of humanities studies in Canada?

Canada has a very vibrant, intellectually stimulating and I would say also creative academic atmosphere in general, especially with regards to the humanities. The University of Toronto has a very vibrant Iranian Studies program with a strong faculty and a series of upcoming new graduates who hold much promise. The field of military studies of ancient Iran is not large in Canada (like virtually many venues in the West at present) but the faculty we have in place are excellent. One of these is Dr. Geoffrey Greatrex at the Department of Classics and Religious Studies in the University of Ottawa.

Given that Canada has two official languages, English and French, it is also welcoming of diversity allowing for a very open academic atmosphere. This has been a powerful magnet for young academics and even professors who are coming in larger numbers to this country. Given the tense political atmosphere in the US at present along with the current Trump administration’s efforts to impose a “Muslim Ban”, in the past year we have had a numbers of Iranian graduate students arrive to Canada who initially planned to arrive to the US. This is of course a big win for Canadian academia, and I must emphasize that the migration of intellect into Canada from the US at present is not confined to Iranians but also high-achievers from many other nationalities, such as Indians for example. Our own prime minster, Justin Trudeau, is forward thinking and looks at the world in a welcoming and cooperative posture. I would dare say that this is a Canadian virtue, one that reminds me of the spirit of Cyrus the Great and the Founding fathers of the United States.

[13] Today – as always – Iran is a hot zone, will we see an East-West conflict with the Trump administration?

As noted in previous responses “Iran” per se, is not an enemy of the West; it is the ruling apparatus in the current establishment who have had adversarial relations with the west. But this needs to be distinguished from the history and people of Iran. As you know well, I do not subscribe to the notion of an “East versus West” paradigm. In fact you and I recently wrote an article on this topic in the Persian Heritage journal. What does “East” mean exactly? If it’s Persia, this is not really “East” as this is more accurate in reference to China, the Far East and Asia in General. Persia as a cultural and historical entity is unique in that sense. However, as you and I noted in the Persian Heritage journal, the notion of an “East” versus the “West” remains strong and this certainly plays well into recent politics.

While the Trump administration certainly has chosen to take a partisan, confrontational approach to politics with Iran, this may not be constructive in the short and long term. A look at the press reports from Europe, Iran and internationally illustrates one point: Iran just had an election, flawed though it is and manipulated by the theocracy, but it still was an election nonetheless. The current administration in Washington does not seem to be interested however in the fact that the Iranians have voted for moderation and accommodation. This is because Iranians as a whole have a growing appetite for democracy and civil rule. But this does not fit into the tired narrative of Iran being a “threat to world peace”. In reality Iran only spends only 3 percent of its GDP on military defence while Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others in the region being among the top international purchasers of weaponry. So in reality, Iran is not capable of posing much of a military threat against its neighbours. As per terrorism, again, the Trump administration, as noted before, (hyper)focuses on Iran’s faults but does not seem to be interested in the role of US’ Middle East allies and their own (not so positive) role. The problem with Iran is this, and I must again quote Dr. Shirin Hunter on this:

“Iran needs an essentially nationalist, self–contained, pragmatic, and non-ideological approach to foreign policy. It needs to avoid entanglement in others’ disputes, … it should not become embroiled in disputes in the Levant such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran needs to have good relations with all major players so that regional players cannot manipulate its difficulties … since the revolution, Iran’s foreign policy behavior has done nothing but exacerbate its geopolitical predicament… ”

We already mentioned before how many lobbies would prefer that Iran remain a “bête noire”. The current system in Tehran with its vague pan-Islamism is certainly giving the excuse for Iran to remain that “bête noire”. What is less known and not mentioned by Hunter is that many Iranian youth in Iran have protested against these policies with chants such as “No more Palestine, No More Lebanon, We are loyal to Iran”, but these of course go unheeded with the Western press remaining virtually silent at this time. Pan-Islamism has been a failure for Iran. Large numbers of Islamic religious countries do not support Iran and are in many cases even hostile. Even as the regime in Tehran continues to promote the Palestine issue, this has done little good for the country. In fact many Palestinians volunteered to fight against Iran during Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran in 1980-1988 as did large numbers of Egyptians, Jordanians, Pakistanis, Somalis, etc.

“Iraqi” POWs captured by Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Note the diverse nationalities that have been pressed into Saddam Hussein’s army. Western lobbies were supportive of Saddam Hussein’s policies and generously provided his regime with weaponry, including chemical weapons.

Pan-Islamists in Pakistan regularly chant “Death to Iran” in their rallies. Yet despite all of this evidence, the current establishment in Tehran continues to promote the idea of pan-Islamism. As before in the 1980s when vast numbers of Islamic countries supported Saddam Hussein, once again Iran is isolated, this time against the growing hostility of the Saudi-US coalition.

A toast to Saddam’s ambitions. Then Prime Minister Jacques Chirac of France toasts Iraq’s Saddam Hussein on December 1974. By the 1980s, France had become one of Iraq’s biggest suppliers of weapons. This support was so great that French intelligence reported in mid-1986 (after the Iranian capture of Fao) that “…if France cut off the arms pipeline to Iraq for a mere three weeks, Baghdad would collapse” (Timmerman, 1991, pp.231 – Timmerman, K.R. (1991). The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq. Houghton-Mifflin Company).

However there may be good news as well. Perhaps the current Rouhani administration will help avert conflict and certainly, again and again, they have reached out to both the US and Saudis, etc. but to no avail. Yes, the Trump administration certainly is staffed with many who dislike Iran but the international community (Europe, Russia, China, etc.) does not seem to be as eager for a war and also are not interested in abrogating the nuclear agreement given Iran’s compliance with this. Hopefully common sense will prevail as a war will benefit no one and will only bring more mayhem and destruction in a region that desperately needs peace, stability, civil rule and democracy, an equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities for economic growth and advancement. When this happens, everybody wins. One of Darius the Great’s mightiest legacies was in creating history’s first international trade system which depended on prosperity across all of the Persian empire’s regions and populations. But for this to take place, humanity as a whole needs a paradigm shift away from the old “East versus West” thinking towards one of “East WITH West”. Just imagine the type of new world that can be ushered in with this …

Kaveh Farrokh at the Eleventh Annual ASMEA (Association for the Study of the Middle east and Africa), November 1-3, 2018, Washington D.C. where he presented the paper “Farrokh, K. (2018). Parthian era Amazons? Placing the Weapons finds at Vestemin in Historical Context”.

Two New courses for Fall 2018

Kaveh Farrokh is offering two new courses for the of Fall 2018 at the Paris-based Methodologica Universitas at the Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques.  See also the Institution’s Encyclopedic project:

Analytica Iranica: The Multidisciplinary Journal of Iranian Studies … Kaveh Farrokh is one of the Academic Advisors of this Encyclopedia project …

The first of these is the first course offered on the military history of ancient Iran or Persia:

Course HIS/CP/202: The Military History of Ancient Iran: 559 BCE-651 CE [Fall 2018, Methodologica Universitas, Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques]Click here for Registration Information

The course description for the above is as follows (HIS/SP/202):

This course examines Iran’s pre-Islamic military history with respect to political relations, wars, battles with Greece, Rome, Central Asia. These topics are examined in the Achaemenid (559-333 BCE), Parthian (250 BCE-224 CE) and Sassanian (224-651 CE) epochs. Methodology of the course utilizes scientific methodology in archival analysis (primary and secondary sources), numismatics (study of coins), archaeological analysis (analysis of equipment and technology), and statistical methodology (e.g. compiling data for analysis, factor analysis, etc.). The strengths and weaknesses (military, political and social) of each dynasty is examined up to the downfall of ancient Iran to the Arab conquests of Iran (637-651 CE). Detailed analysis is made of developments from the early Achaemenid era to the end of the Sassanian era with respect to equipment, technology, military architecture, military doctrine, and martial culture. Influences upon and from Greece, Rome, Central Asia and Eastern Europe are also examined. The course concludes with a survey of post-Islamic sources reporting of the extensive military literature pertaining to Sassanian weapons and tactics (battlefield tactics, siege craft, etc.) and its influence upon Islamic warfare.

Kaveh Farrokh meeting the late Professor Ehsan Yarshater (1920-2018) during the Honoring ceremony for the late Professor Emeritus Richard Nelson Frye (1920-2014) in the Greater San Francisco area in 2008.

The second is a comprehensive course on the History of ancient Iran or Persia, which will incorporate modern research and academic methodologies incorporating anthropology, archaeology, the study of sources, numismatics, etc:

Course HIS/CP/203: The History of Ancient Iran: 559 BCE-651 CE [Fall 2018, Methodologica Universitas, Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques]Click here for Registration Information

Three Books published in 2017-2018 on the military history of Ancient Iran or Persia (from left to right): The Armies of Ancient Persia: the Sassanians (2017; see book review by the Military History Journal in 2018); A Synopsis of Sassanian Military Organization and Combat Units (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Gholamreza Karamian, 2018); and The Siege of Amida (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Javier Sánchez-Gracia, 2018).

The course description for the above is as follows (HIS/CP/203):

Course begins with the pre Indo-European era of ancient Iran and the rise of proto-Iranian peoples and arrivals onto the Iranian plateau. Recent archaeological works and research of pre Indo-European Iran, such as the Burnt City and Elam are surveyed. This is followed by detailed historical surveys of the three epochs of ancient Iran: Achaemenids (559-333 BCE), Parthians (250 BCE-224 CE) and Sassanians (224-651 CE). Course material is integrated with methodology utilizing scientific methodology in archival analysis (primary and secondary sources), numismatics (study of coins), archaeological analysis (analysis of equipment and technology), and statistical methodology (e.g. compiling data for analysis, factor analysis, etc.). The political relations and cultural exchanges of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties with the Greco-Roman, Central Asian, Indian subcontinent, Caucasian, European and Chinese realms are examined. Each epoch is also examined with respect to developments in legal systems, societal development and the role of women, the arts, architecture, learning, medicine, technology, theology and religious philosophy, communications, shipping, commerce and the Silk Route.

[Above] Kaveh Farrokh’s second textShadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-” cited by the BBC-Persian service as theBest History Book of 2007(November 5, 2008), as well as the by Kayhan News Service of London (November 12, 2008). The text was nominated by the Independent Book Publishers’ Association (Benjamin Franklin Award) among the top finalists for the Best textbooks of 2008. The book has been recognized by world-class scholars such as the late Professor Emeritus Richard Nelson Frye (1920-2014), Harvard University, Dr. Geoffrey Greatrex, Department of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Ottawa, Dr. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, School of HistoryUniversity of Edinburgh and Dr. Patrick Hunt. The book was reviewed in the world-class academic (peer-reviewed by top Iranian Studies scholars) Iranshenasi journal in 2010: Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, by Dr. Kaveh Farrokh. Iranshenasi, Volume XXII, No.1, Spring 2010, pp.1-5 (see document in pdf). [Below] Translations of Shadows in the Desert [A] Persian translation by Taghe Bostan Publishers (2009) [B] Persian translation by Qoqnoos Publishers (2009) [C] the original textbook (2008) and [D] Russian translation by EXMO Publishers.

Cyrus the Great and the Founding Fathers of the United States

The Founding fathers of the United States, especially Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), John Adams (1735-1826) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) were strongly influenced by Cyrus the Great’s (approx. 600-530 BCE) legacy of governance.

John Trumbull’s 1819 painting of the Declaration of Independence (Public Domain with original painting in the Capitol Building of Washington DC). This depicts the Committee of Five presenting their document to Congress on June 28, 1776. Less known is the fact that the Founding fathers of the United States  admired and consulted Cyrus’ legacy of governance as described in the Cyropaedia (Greek: Kúrou Paideía = The Education of Cyrus).

Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, entered the city of Babylon on October 29, 543 CE, a full 17 days after his ally Babylonian General Gubaru had arrived at the Metropolis. According to the Nabonidus Chronicle (III, 12-22), Cyrus was welcomed as a liberator by the local citizenry:

In the month of Arahsamah, the third day, Cyrus entered Babylon, green twigs, doubtless reeds or rushes to smooth out the path of his chariot … The state of peace was imposed on all the city. Cyrus sent messages of greetings to all of Babylon

A depiction of Cyrus the Great in his (ceremonial?) chariot as he enters Babylon City with his retinue on October 29, 543 CE (Source: El Palacia De Las Nueve Lunas). The Nabonidus Chronicle states that as Cyrus entered the city, twigs and reeds were laid by local citizens along the path of his chariot.

Cyrus’ conduct in Babylon is later corroborated by Greek historian and soldier Xenophon (c.430-354 CE) in his “Education of Cyrus” or Cyropaedia (VII, 5, 20-26).

Xenophon (431-355 BC) wrote a compendium of Cyrus, known as the Cyropaedia. The Cyropaedia has been consulted as a standard reference of statesmanship by a number of prominent leaders in world history. Readers can access the Cyropaedia translated by H.G. Dakyns by clicking here …

One example of Cyrus’ statesmanship was his respect for the diversity of theology, languages and cultures. Upon his arrival into Babylon, Cyrus proclaimed his humility and respect for the Babylonian God Marduk. As noted in the Cyrus Cylinder (discovered in March 1879 by excavation work for by the British Museum):

Marduk, the great lord, bestowed on me as my destiny the great magnanimity of one who loves Babylon, and I every day sought him out in awe.” [Translation of Cyrus Cylinder, British Museum, 2009]

The Cyrus Cylinder (The British Museum)

For more articles on Cyrus the Great and the Cyrus Cylinder see here:

کوروش بزرگ -Cyrus the Great & the Cyrus Cylinder

Perhaps most remarkable is how little is known today of the influence of Cyrus’ legacy upon the Founding Fathers of the United States. This is because Cyrus was well known to Greco-Roman civilization, thanks to Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. The Roman statesman Scipio Africanus (236-183 BCE) had a copy of the Cyropaedia.

Scipio Africanus of Rome as depicted in a mid 1st century BCE Roman bust of bronze, currently housed at the Naples National Archaeological Museum (Inv. No. 5634) (Source: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta in Public Domain). Scipio Afriocanus regularly consulted his copy of the Cyropaedia.

Scipio like many Classical and Western statesmen to come after him, knew well of Cyrus and his adaptive policies of governance by way of the Cyropaedia. Looking further into Cyrus’ policies upon his arrival in Babylon, as inscribed upon the Cyrus Cylinder:

My vast army marched into Babylon in peace; I did not permit anyone to frighten the people of [Sumer] /and\ Akkad. …relieved their wariness and freed them from their service. Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced over [my good] deeds.

Note that Cyrus cited Marduk, the god of Babylon, and not the supreme Zoroastrian deity Ahura-Mazda.

A Snake-Dragon image-symbol of Marduk, the patron God of Babylon (Panel of glazed earthenware bricks, Ishtar Gate, c. 604-562 BCE) (Source: Detroit Institute of Arts). Instead of plunder and destruction, like the former kings of the preceding Near Eastern empires, Cyrus paid homage to the local Babylonian god Marduk and ensured that no looting, plunder or destruction took place in that ancient city. More recently, a tribute to Marduk was found at Persepolis (see here …)

Cyrus also showed concern for the day to day living circumstances of local citizenry by ordering the restoration of Babylon-City’s Derelict quarters – as cited on the Cylinder:

“…bought relief to their dilapidated housing [in Babylon-City] putting an end to their complaints…”

In essence, this was an order for a slum clearance program. Among Cyrus’ other policies of note were:

  • Restoration of gods to their enclosures in Babylon
  • Re-institution of the New Year Festival
  • Policy of racial and religious equality & acceptance
  • Deported peoples allowed to return home
  • Destroyed Temples ordered to be restored

While several top historians have examined Cyrus the Great and his legacies, perhaps one of the most enduring observations remain that of late Professor William James (Will) Durant (1885-1981):

The first principle of his [Cyrus the Great] policy was that the various peoples of his empires would be left free in their religious worship and beliefs…Instead of sacking cities and wrecking temples he showed a courteous respect for the deities of the conquered, and contributed to maintain their shrines…Like Napoleon he accepted indifferently all religions, and-with much better grace-honored all the gods.” [Durant, 1942, page 353; Durant, Will (1942) The Story of Civilization:(Part One): Our Oriental Heritage. New York: Simon & Shuster]

An ingress route to the Temple of Amon in Egypt (Source: Khan Academy). Achaemenid kings such as Cambyses and Darius the Great  consistently provided funds and support for the reconstruction and repair of Egypt’s temples.

With respect to Achaemenid rule in general, Young notes:

Because of the religious, ethnic and social tolerance with which the Achaemenids chose to rule, one cannot speak of an imperial social structure. Earlier attempts at empire in ancient West Asia had been anything but tolerant. Why therefore were the Achaemenids so different?” [Young, T.C., The Achaemenids (559-330 BC), pp.160, in Cotterell, A. (Editor) (1993). Classical Civilizations. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books].

This is a question that scholars have been examining for decades. The legacy of Cyrus’ policies are corroborated by independent Greek and Biblical sources independent of each other and further documented by archaeological finds in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Egypt and Western Anatolia (in Modern Turkey).

As noted by the late Max Von Mallowan (1904-1978) in the Cambridge History of Iran:

Religious toleration was a remarkable feature of Persian rule and there is no question that Cyrus himself was a liberal-minded promoter of this humane and intelligent policy.” [Max Von Mallowan. Cyrus the Great. In Cambridge History of Iran (Volume 2: The Median and Achaemenean Periods), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp.392-419.]

Biblical sources provide a very comprehensive perspective on Cyrus’ system of rule. The Old testament describes Cyrus (cited as Koresh) as a Messiah, or more specifically as Yahweh’s anointed (Book of Ezra, Chapter 1). Viewed as a savior of Jews, Cyrus is described as follows in Isaiah:

He [Cyrus] is my Shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose” (Isaiah, 44.28; 45.1; see also 35, 40-55).

The West Wall in Jerusalem. After his conquest of Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jewish captives to return to Israel and rebuild the Hebrew temple. It is believed that approximately 40,000 did permanently return to Israel. President Truman in his support for the Jews in the twentieth century, evoked the name of Cyrus.

It is believed that up to 40,000 Jewish exiles in Babylon were allowed to return to Israel. Using funds from the imperial treasury, Cyrus financially supported the Jews in rebuilding their Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra III: 7). Cyrus also ordered that sacred Hebrew utensils confiscated by Babylonian king Nebudchadnezzar (reign approx: 605–562 BC) now be restored to their rightful Jewish owners (Ezra I: 7-8).

Gustave Dore’s painting of Cyrus the Great restoring the sacred vessels of the temple to the Jews (Posted in the KingFoska Files website). When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he  ordered the sacred religious objects of the Jerusalem Temple to be restored to their rightful owners, the Jews.

Cyrus’ policies did not simply end after the passing of Cyrus. Under Darius I, the Achaemenid Empire continued these policies. Note that by Darius’ time in the 4th century BCE, the Achaemenid Empire now contained approximately 42 million citizens, or roughly 27% of the world’s populace. Darius’ rule resulted in the creation of remarkable wealth and prosperity for the citizenry, in large part due to the understanding that a policy of inclusion, tolerance and openness to peoples, creeds, languages and ideas helps to propel the rise of a powerful and robust economy.

Such policies may again explain why one of history’s most important statesmen, Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) also read the Cyropaedia. This is noteworthy as not only does this dispel the false narrative of the so-called historicity of the “Clash of Civilizations” but serves to highlight Cyrus’ legacy (through the Cyropaedia) in the system of Roman rule. Put simply, like the Achaemenids, Rome was an imperial power, however (like the Achaemenids) it was also highly cosmopolitan and tolerant of different cultures and creeds.

Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) (Source: ForWallpaper).

The Romans were well versed in the literature of the Greeks notably Plato who presented Cyrus as having attained the ideal harmony in governance. Xenophon’s aforementioned Cyropaedia presented Cyrus as a leader who extolled the ideals of balance and tolerance in government. As noted by Sheda Vasseghi in her PhD Dissertation published in 2017 entitled Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In Origins Of Western Civilization” (University of New England, Academic advising Team: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi, Kaveh Farrokh):

Later rulers such as Alexander the Great, Hellenistic kingdoms, Roman and Byzantine emperors, and Muslim caliphs will adopt the idea of Persian absolute kingship, Persian imperial model such as the satrapal system and institutions, or wish to emulate Cyrus the Great’s policies (Cole & Symes, 2017; King, 2000; Noble et al., 2011). Sherman and Salisbury (2014) stated in the story of the West, “the Persian Empire marks a culmination of the first stirrings of Western civilization in the ancient Middle East” followed by the Greeks (p. 36).”

It is perhaps thus remarkable that 23 centuries after the passing of the Achaemenid Empire, the Founding Fathers of the United States knew full well of Cyrus and his legacy of governance. Note that the Founding Fathers (who laid the Foundation for the American Republic) and Cyrus (who established the monarchy of ancient Iran) had three characteristics in common:

  1. Tolerance of diverse creeds, languages, religions, etc.
  2. The rule of law (justice)
  3. Equality of all citizens

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the primary author of America’s Declaration of Independence from England, had two of his own copies of the Cyropaedia (bilingual Greek & Latin version published in Europe, 1767, currently held at the Library of Congress). Jefferson frequently read his Cyropaedia and expressed his affinity for the separation of Church and State alongside the freedom of worship (religion). Interestingly, Jefferson wrote a letter to a friend in 1787 inquiring if he had an Italian edition of the Cyropaedia. The reason for this request as stated by Jefferson was that even-though he had already read the original Cyropaeda, he was seeking further elaboration/clarification on a number of points. It is clear that Jefferson regularly studied this text and wanted to attain full knowledge of its contents and purpose.

President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) of the United States of America.

Jefferson wanted to know more of ancient Persian civilization and especially its system of rule. He is also known for having made note no. 852 in his Commonplace Book as he read Voltaire’s Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations):

Then that ancient religion of the Magi fell, that the conqueror Darius had respected, as he never disturbed the religion of conquered peoples. The Magi regarded their religion as the most ancient and the most pure. The knowledge that they had of mathematics, astronomy and of history augmented their enmity toward the conquerors the Arabs, who were so ignorant. They [the Magi] could not abandon their religion, consecrated for so many centuries. Then most of them retreated to the extremities of Persia and India. It is there that they live today, under the name Gaurs or Guebres“ [Thomas Jefferson, The Commonplace Book of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Gilbert Chinard,1926, p.334‐35; passage translated by R.N. Frye]

Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (Source: Angelina Perri Birney). Like many of the Founding Fathers and those who wrote the US Constitution, President Jefferson regularly consulted the Cyropaedia – an encyclopedia written by the ancient Greeks about Cyrus the Great. The two personal copies of Thomas Jefferson’s Cyropaedia are in the US Library of Congress in Washington DC. Thomas Jefferson’s initials “TJ” are seen clearly engraved at the bottom of each page.

Just six years before his passing, in a letter penned by him in October 6, 1820, Thomas Jefferson had advised his grandson to study the Cyropaedia among other recommended classical works.

Founding Father and statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), was like Jefferson, in possession of a copy of the Cyropaedia. This is because Franklin also had a deep appreciation for the statecraft of Cyrus.

Benjamin Franklin portrayed at the age of 79 (Painting by Joseph Duplessis, housed at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC). A prodigy of his time, Franklin was as multifaceted as he was progressive – he was a scientist, inventor, author, publisher and a statesman who knew of the governance of Cyrus.

Like Franklin and Jefferson, John Adams (1735-1826) also had a copy of the Cyropaedia. Interestingly, John Adams had mentioned to Thomas Jefferson that he had read British Ambassador Sir John Malcolm’s 2-Volume textbook History of Persia. One of his main objectives for reading that text was to obtain more information on Cyrus and his legacy. John Adams persuaded his son, John Quincy Adams, to become president and requested that he read the Cyropaedia.

John Adams is also the founder of the University of Virginia. The prerequisite for students entering that university was to read (in the original Greek and/or Latin) Xenophon (author of the Cyropaedia) and other classical writers. John Adams also authored a treatise on the failings of past forms of government but interestingly he exempted ancient Persia from that treatise.

John Adams (1735-1826) one of the Founding Fathers of the United States (Source: Biography.com). Adams was cognizant of the governance of Cyrus and had a copy of the Cyropaedia.

The principle of governance penned by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution of the United States is perhaps one of the most significant developments in the history of mankind. As a defender of the Union and the Constitution, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) delivered the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), ending the institution of slavery in the United States.

A water-color painting in c. 1863 of an African-American citizen avidly reading by candlelight, a newspaper bearing the headline: “Presidential Proclamation, Slavery” (Source: Public Domain & Library Congress). This was in reference to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation delivered in Jan. 1863.

In a sense, Lincoln’s emancipation declaration and Cyrus’ cylinder bear parallels:

  • Lincoln proclaimed the rights of African-Americans as free citizens entitled to full rights and freedoms under the Constitution of the United States
  • Cyrus proclaimed the rights and freedoms of all diverse peoples for religion, creed, etc.

Cyrus, ancient Iran and the modern United States are linked together through the Founding Fathers, even if such links have yet to be fully acknowledged.

President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) (Source: Public Domain & Mead Art Museum).

Angelina Perri Birney and Lawrence Birney have noted the following with respect to Cyrus’ legacy in the United Nations:

In addition to the influence of the Cyropaedia on the US founding fathers, its core principles resonate with those of the United Nations. The high-minded concepts fathered by Cyrus in Persia thousands of years ago have found expression in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Brought to life by John Peters Humphrey and the UN Commission on Human Rights chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Declaration was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) consults the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (Source: Angelina Perri Birney). As noted by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Disregard and contempt for Human Rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people… All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” (UDHR-Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney).

Just months after he left office of President of the US in November 1953, President Harry Truman (1884-1972) made a remarkable statement to a number of Jewish dignitaries in New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Truman’s long-time associate, Eddie Jacobson, introduced Truman to the Jewish dignitaries stating “This is the man who helped create the State of Israel” . Truman then exclaimed: “What do you mean, helped to create? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus”.

Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) who as President of the United States in 1945-1953 acknowledged the legacy of Cyrus the Great in liberating the Jews from their Babylonian captivity; For more Click here…

Finally, readers are advised to reflect on how (and why) this information is known by so few and why this is hardly ever mentioned in the media, entertainment industry, and academia. To the contrary, elements in entertainment, media and political outlets (and increasingly in academia) appear intent at rewriting (or inverting) history by ignoring the fact that ancient Iran or “Persia” was in fact a civilization partner in history and not some mysterious, hostile and distant “Other”.

The Founding Fathers of the United States are testament to the fact that ancient Iran was in fact placed on an equivalent platform with Greece, Rome and other great civilizations, each of whom which has made invaluable contributions to the evolution of law and governance.

When history supplants petty politics: Koresh or Cyrus street in Jerusalem. There is currently no street named Cyrus or Koroush in Tehran, the capital of Iran today. There is also an “Iran” street in Israel.